“We’ll put up half the money for California HSR” says Japan’s Ambassador to the United States
Yesterday I attended the Japanese government sponsored high speed rail seminar in Los Angeles. Led by the Japan International Transport Institute (JITI) and their country’s passenger rail operators and manufactures, the conference was an impressive push for California HSR to utilize Japanese knowledge, equipment, and perhaps most critically, financing.
Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, was in Los Angeles from Washington, DC for the conference. Ambassador Fujisaki’s opening remarks to the conference were a forceful call for us to use Japanese know-how and equipment for our high speed rail. Most extraordinarily, the ambassador stated that he believes Japan will pay for up to half of the cost of the California’s HSR.
This is significant of course as we try to find dollars to complete our system. While Fujisaki’s comments of course don’t bind the Japanese government, its railways, or the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC, the likely vehicle for California HSR financing as I’ll explain below) it is nonetheless a significant statement. Japan’s highest ranking diplomat would not make such a statement lightly. Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that such cooperation on HSR between the US and Japan is very much in our bi-lateral national security interests.
The half day conference featured U.S. elected officials as well as Japanese railway and manufacturing companies (see JITI’s website here for the complete program). Congressman Jim Costa, the pioneer that conceived the Prop. 1A bond when he was in the legislature stated memorably that after many false starts for HSR in the U.S. the Japanese clearly believe that this is the real deal. Congresswoman Laura Richardson similarly observed that talking about high speed rail before Prop. 1A and ARRA passed got you strange looks.
Authority CEO Roelof van Ark gave an up to date presentation on where the project stands now with the funds in hand. He projected an opening of the current segment for revenue service as early as 2018 while funds are aggressively being sought for extensions north and south of the Central Valley.
JR East President and Chairman of Japan’s Council for Global Promotion of Railways Satoshi Seino explained that the state owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation has recently been authorized to invest in high-speed rail and urban rail in the U.S. and other developed countries. Their presentation suggested that the loan terms would be long and the interest rate would be set at a quarter percent over the LIBOR rate (an interbank interest rate).
Executives from several of Japan’s Shinkansen operating railway companies and train manufacturer Kawasaki followed. Some highlights from their presentations included:
- Mixed Use Development – Land use planning and economic development of station areas has been an integral part of HSR development from the beginning in Japan. Examples of both infill and greenfield station developments there were illustrated. Useful parallels to Los Angeles Union Station and Fresno’s future HSR station were made.
- Earthquake Design Countermeasures – They are extensive in the Japanese system and we can be confident that being on a California HSR train will be one of the safest places to be when the big one hits.
- Integration of Conventional Branch Lines into HSR Operations – The Japanese practice of trains uncoupling cars at intermediate stations and having one of the cars proceed down the “conventional” railroad (at conventional speeds) was discussed. This would certainly be possible here. In a way it would be easier since HSR and conventional railroads would use the same gauge (4 ft. 8.5 in.) whereas Shinkansen uses a different gauge than the “legacy” railways in Japan. However, the lack of electrification on American railways would make this harder. Down the San Joaquin corridor and even the LA Metrolink/Surfliner corridors would be candidates for this kind of one-seat operation.
- Technology Transfer – Kawasaki Heavy Industries (which already has two plants in the US for conventional railcar manufacture) as well as the JR operating companies’ representatives all expressed a strong willingness to transfer their expertise to this country. This would be accomplished through the development of American parts suppliers, final assembly in the U.S., and pre-training of trainset maintenance staff. Kawasaki even expressed a desire to retool American auto parts suppliers to HSR parts suppliers.
- FRA Compliance – Kawasaki asserts that their efSET (2) proposed train for export will “comply with FRA requirements”. Whether this is the current FRA requirements for inefficient overbuilt HSR trains (Acela) or upcoming sensible regulations remains to be seen.
(All the presentations are supposed to be on JITI’s website soon).
All-in-all a day that could be hardly imagined pre-Nov. 2008 and pre-ARRA funds. Basically our Japanese allies are begging us for the chance to build our train because they know it’s going to profitable. You can look at it this way. Japan is already a large purchaser of America’s sovereign debt. Investing in HSR will, in my analysis, simply be an “earmarking” of money that Japan is already spending on US and state government securities.
Should the federal government be putting more money down? Absolutely. But until the current Congress gets it head out of the sand we need to get busy and build it.
Furthermore, I find that sovereign investment in our HSR system from Japan and also France, for instance, to be in keeping with out national security and foreign policy goals. Chinese investment, in contrast, seems more problematic foreign policy-wise. Japan and Western Europe are our long standing allies in the world and they largely share our values with regards to democracy and civil society.
I “feel good” about a enlisting Japanese help in getting California and this country moving into the 21st century.