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Fate of Japan's fastest bullet train hangs on just 9km of track

Environmental concerns cast doubt on 2027 start of $80bn maglev line

Central Japan Railway's maglev train, seen here on a test track, is designed for speeds of up to 505 kph. (Photo by Yohei Hirose)

NAGOYA -- The opposition of a lone governor in Japan has thrown into doubt the timetable for a 9 trillion yen ($83 billion) project to build an ultrafast magnetic-levitation rail line between Tokyo and Nagoya.

The only part of the 286 km line yet to enter into construction is a roughly 9 km stretch planned to run through Shizuoka Prefecture, known for its famous views of Mount Fuji.

This worries not only the company behind the project, Central Japan Railway, which aims to start its maglev service in 2027, but also the governors of other prefectures along the line hoping it will be a boon for local economies.

Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu says his opposition to approving construction of a key tunnel section is based solely on concerns over the impact on local river water. But some suspect him of engaging in brinkmanship to extract more benefits for his prefecture, which will not have a stop on the maglev line.

"The goal of starting operations in 2027 is not realistic," Kawakatsu said on Sept. 5 at a meeting here with Aichi Prefecture Gov. Hideaki Omura, whose prefecture sits at the Nagoya terminus.

Concerns about a loss of water flowing into the Oi River have held up construction on a key section of Central Japan Railway's magnetic-levitation rail line. (Photo by Yuta Fukushima)

Omura sounded a note of frustration with Kawakatsu's stance. "If time goes by as we're stuck in a stare down, we will be in trouble," he said.

Other local government authorities have drawn up urban schemes and economic policies based on the maglev's planned completion date. But "at this rate, the 2027 timetable for starting operations could be impacted," said Shin Kaneko, president of Central Japan Railway, also known as JR Tokai.

JR Tokai says the new line will carry passengers from Tokyo to Nagoya in just 40 minutes. Real estate prices have risen in the latter city in anticipation of the connectivity boost.

The most difficult part of the maglev project involves tunneling through a mountainous region known as the Southern Alps. The Shizuoka section was slated to be completed in November 2026, but the groundbreaking has been on hold for two years.

"The further the construction start is delayed, the more difficult it will be to make up for lost time," Kaneko said.

"If we fully deploy workers and machinery now, we will just barely make the deadline," said the chief of a JR Tokai construction subsidiary.

Kawakatsu says the tunnel through the Southern Alps would reduce the volume of water flowing into the Oi River.

The river is a sensitive topic for Shizuoka residents. The completion of a hydroelectric dam in the 1960s sparked a protest movement among locals.

Some suspect the reason for Kawakatsu's opposition may extend beyond the Oi River. "There is little economic merit" for Shizuoka to host the maglev line "and it will be difficult to gain the understanding of the public," said a source close to one of the local governments along the line.

Shizuoka will be the only prefecture to not have a maglev station, which will limit the economic benefit. "I think Gov. Kawakatsu may be looking for some kind of compensation" said a national legislator representing a district in Shizuoka.

In June, Kawakatsu floated the idea of paying Shizuoka an environmental impact compensation equal to the average cost of building maglev stations in other prefectures. That would amount to an 82.5 billion yen ($767 million) payoff.

That idea was immediately retracted. But JR Tokai and other stakeholders felt that Kawakatsu has finally signaled a willingness to bargain.

"If he's going to negotiate terms, I wish he would clearly indicate them," said a JR Tokai executive. "At this rate, we won't be able to find a point of compromise."

Possible trade-offs for the maglev may include a shinkansen bullet train station to be built below Shizuoka Airport, new roads through the Southern Alps, or a fund dedicated toward environmental protection.

But Kawakatsu has repeatedly denied seeking such benefits. "Resolving the water and environmental problems are everything," he said.

In late April, Kaneko and JR Tokai Chairman Koei Tsuge met secretly with senior officials from Shizuoka and Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The three sides sought to have Kaneko and Kawakatsu negotiate an environmental agreement in June, then shake hands on constructing the Shizuoka section.

But when a senior Shizuoka official visited Kawakatsu's office in May, the governor flatly rejected those plans.

Many Shizuoka prefectural legislators see Kawakatsu as an academic impervious to conventional wisdom in politics. The governor presents himself as a someone not bound by the process of political compromise.

JR Tokai has little room to absorb the costs of a delay. The company has lined up 3 trillion yen in government financing to push forward an extension of the maglev line to Osaka by at least eight years.

"When will we have to make the judgment that we won't finish on time?" a JR Tokai executive said. "That would be an extremely political business decision."

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