Japan Resumes Maglev Testing
Japan has had high speed rail for nearly 50 years, and an extensive national network for decades. That allows them to look to the next generation of high speed service – maglev.
Last week Japan resumed maglev testing at speeds of 310 miles an hour:
Central Japan Railway Co. plans to begin work on the 5.1 trillion yen ($52 billion) maglev line between Tokyo and Nagoya as early as April. Trials resumed today after the company spent five years building a 24-kilometer extension of a test track. The trains can run at speeds of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) per hour.
The maglevs will whisk passengers to Nagoya, a city of 2.3 million people, from Tokyo in as little as 40 minutes for the 286-kilometer journey, from as short as 95 minutes now, according to JR Central.
That’s a cost of $293 million per mile. California high speed rail is currently estimated at about $130 million per mile, based on an estimated $68 billion price tag for the 520 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
However, maglev’s cost may well rise above that estimate. Maglev has never been built on the scale Japan is proposing. There are significant engineering challenges ahead:
Faced with the challenge of tunneling under Tokyo’s skyscrapers and the Japanese Alps, the project is unlikely to be completed on time even as Japan’s population is projected to shrink, eroding travel demand.
“I think it’s going to be finished very, very late,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo, which manages about $3 billion in assets. “If the population projections are correct, then the use of the bullet train will go down.”
Japan’s population may fall to as little as 117 million by 2027 from 127 million now, according to projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. By 2060, the overall population may drop to 80 million.
That last bit, however, is ridiculous economic analysis that isn’t worth the electrons on which it’s virtually printed. So what if Japan’s population is shrinking? There is still economic benefit to shortening the travel time between Japan’s major cities, and there is significant benefit to reducing further any demand for oil and reducing carbon emissions. As a nation with an extensive HSR system, maglev may not produce a whole lot of savings on oil and carbon emissions over the Shinkansen, but any savings is still worth it.
Innovation is not free. Some critics of California’s HSR project have charged that we should be building something more ambitious, like maglev, or even a hyperloop. Their time will come. For now, California needs to build out the basic HSR backbone, using off the shelf technology that is less prone to major cost increases. Those cost increases are a political matter, not a practical problem. And maglev would come with greater political challenges, not fewer.
California’s path is the right one. Break down those barriers by building HSR first. Once that system is in place and working effectively, maglev would be the next logical step later on in the century. It will help if Japan has perfected the system and the technology before us.