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Japan maglev builder needs to dig deep -- in more ways than one

Buying out urban landowners could prove as tricky as tunneling under mountains

Digging a 25km tunnel under a mountain range in central Japan is just one of the hurdles JR Central must clear to build its Tokyo-Nagoya maglev line.

NAGOYA -- With 10 years to go until it is supposed to open for service, a Japanese railway project decades in the making is readying to cut its way deep under a daunting mountain range, but the tunnel is hardly the only obstacle in the way of this high-profile effort.

Acquiring land to build stations along the magnetic-levitation train line from here to Tokyo will also test Central Japan Railway's ability to complete it on time, potentially adding to the estimated 5.5 trillion yen ($50.4 billion) construction costs.

Mountains to cross

The air was cool underground despite Wednesday's oppressive heat as JR Central, also known as JR Tokai, showed reporters inside a tunnel under the Southern Alps, one of the most difficult segments of the line to build.

About 2.5km into the tunnel, groundwater flowed quietly down channels off to the side, giving the air a faintly damp smell. At the far end loomed a large machine that bores holes in the rock surface, to be filled with dynamite charges for blasting the rock apart. Digging proceeds at a steady five meters per day in that fashion. The machinery was halted for the press visit, but normally runs day and night.

The Southern Alps tunnel will span 25km through the prefectures of Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Nagano in central Japan. "There are various strata" in the tunnel's path, said Kiichiro Arie, the chief of construction for Yamanashi, so "we have to constantly make estimates as we dig."

At its deepest, the tunnel will reach about 1,400 meters below ground. The structure must support the crushing weight of the mountains above and contend with unpredictable groundwater. Such difficulties are part of the reason work started on this particular area right away.

JR Central has been running maglev trains on a test track near Mount Fuji that will become part of the final route.

This is only the preliminary stage, however. Construction of the actual segment of tunnel the maglev train will pass through is planned to start this fiscal year, says Arie. Work is already over a year behind the schedule that JR Central initially presented.

Deep pockets needed

JR Central has been building the 286km superconducting maglev line, formally known as the Chuo Shinkansen, for about two and a half years. Once finished, trains will glide over the tracks at speeds of up to around 500kph, connecting Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes instead of the current 90 minutes or so. JR Central says it aims to start service on this segment in 2027 and extend the line to Osaka as early as 2037.

The challenges to building the line go beyond tunnels. People with knowledge of the project express unease about securing land for station construction.

The Nagoya stop presents a particular challenge. A planned 1km-long underground station here requires some 23,000 sq. meters of space. Businesses and multi-use buildings occupy the land in question, and negotiations with the estimated 120 or so property owners are expected to prove difficult.

Funding the project poses anther concern. JR Central plans to procure 3 trillion yen through the Ministry of Finance's Fiscal Investment and Loan Program. Also known as zaito funding, this program provides long-term, low-interest capital for projects of a public nature. The remaining 2.5 trillion yen in costs is supposed to come mostly out of pocket. But there is no guarantee that the railroad operator's cash cow, the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line connecting Tokyo and Osaka, will stay healthy forever. And a worker shortage may drive up construction costs, as could delays on the way to completion.

Japanese engineering group Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is pulling out of work on the train cars for the maglev line amid a disagreement with JR Central over costs.

JR Central spends over 30 billion yen per year on upgrades to the half-century-old bullet train line -- Japan's busiest -- just to keep it spry. The maglev project is in part an effort to cut reliance on this aging infrastructure.

"We are well aware the schedule is daunting, but we are working at it with all our might," said JR Central President Koei Tsuge.

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