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Japan's maglev pits new artery against the environment

Tokyo-Nagoya link faces delay past 2027 as governor defends river

JR Central's maglev train will travel underground for most of its route between Tokyo and Nagoya. (Photo by Saki Hayashi)

TOKYO -- Japan's plan to connect its three major economic centers of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka with just an hour's train ride has taken a major step back.

Twice as fast as Japan's famed bullet trains, the magnetic-levitation train is scheduled to open in 2027, first connecting Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes instead of the current 90.

But on Friday, Shizuoka Prefecture Gov. Heita Kawakatsu refused to give the maglev operator the green light to start preparatory construction work, owing to environmental concerns.

Of the seven prefectures that the maglev will travel through on its journey from Shinagawa Station in Tokyo to Nagoya Station, Shizuoka is the only one it does not stop in. The world's fastest train will just pass through a deep underground tunnel.

Nearly 90%, or 246 km, of the Shinagawa-Nagoya maglev route will run through tunnels. The longest of these will be the 25 km South Alps Tunnel piercing mountains spanning the three prefectures of Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Nagano.

Shizuoka and Central Japan Railway, or JR Central, have been at odds over the planned excavation of a 9 km section of the tunnel and its impact on a mountain river.

JR Central set a June date for restarting maglev construction to avoid derailing the 2027 opening. Construction had been halted to assess the environmental impact.

But Kawakatsu remained unswayed in his first meeting with JR Central President Shin Kaneko on Friday.

Stuck between a choice of building the country's new artery and addressing local communities' environmental concerns, the 9 trillion yen ($84 billion) project is set for a costly delay.

Kawakatsu asserts that the project would reduce the volume of water flowing into Shizuoka's Oi River.

"What will you do when it becomes too complicated to bring back all the water?" the governor asked Kaneko at Friday's fully televised 80-minute meeting.

Kawakatsu also threw cold water on the maglev's projected ridership, citing the coronavirus and the rise of telecommuting. "People say they don't know who will ride" the maglev, he said.

JR Central President Shin Kaneko, left, and Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu ahead of their meeting at the Shizuoka prefectural office on June 26. (Photo by Yuta Fukushima)

The maglev, for which construction began in 2014, can reach a speed of roughly 500 kph, twice the velocity of a shinkansen bullet train. An extension to Osaka is planned in 2037 at the earliest.

The Tokyo-Nagoya section will run through seven prefectures once it is completed. The opening of the section will unleash economic benefits of at least 10.7 trillion yen over five decades, Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting estimates.

But Shizuoka, slated to be the sole prefecture without a maglev station, has little to gain, as the train would just travel underneath the mountains. In contrast, the arterial Tokaido shinkansen that links Tokyo with Osaka has six stations in Shizuoka.

Construction of the mountain tunnel will reduce water flow into the Oi River, the prefecture says, affecting the livelihood of farmers and others living near the waterway.

Shizuoka has repeatedly demanded that JR Central disclose scientific data relating to the project, but those efforts reportedly have yielded nothing convincing.

"There is a chain of suspicion between [Shizuoka] and JR Central," a source close to Kawakatsu said.

The prefectural assembly complains that Shizuoka's station buildings and rolling stock on conventional rail lines are outdated compared with surrounding prefectures.

Shizuoka holds a gubernatorial election next summer. Kawakatsu has not revealed whether he will run for reelection, but people in the assembly speculate that he is embodying local grievances with an eye on a campaign.

JR Central has yet to start full-scale digging of the Shizuoka tunnel, seeking approval for preparatory work at present.

"If we don't reopen the project in June, a 2027 start [of the maglev] will be challenging," Kaneko said.

The Tokyo-Nagoya section is expected to cost 5.5 trillion yen, becoming roughly 9 trillion yen with the Osaka extension added. The price tag will rise by 100 billion yen to 200 billion yen for every year that the project is held up, a source at a Japanese brokerage said.

Business travelers make up 70% of Tokaido shinkansen passengers. But ridership would incur a heavy blow if internet conferencing becomes the norm. Property development along the maglev line, which is proceeding on the assumption of a 2027 start date, would be impacted as well.

The maglev would serve as a bypass route if the Tokaido shinkansen were shut down by a calamity. It also would offset any lower passenger capacity if the 55-year-old bullet train line undergoes major repairs or upgrades.

Kaneko cited those purposes as he stressed the importance of providing an ultrahigh-speed link connecting Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. But Kawakatsu refused to budge.

JR Central is known as the lead moneymaker among the JR railway group, thanks to the Tokaido shinkansen. The company's operating profit margin alone towers at 36%, far above the average of roughly 7% among Japan's listed companies. The maglev is supposed to be the next growth driver.

The line has received 3 trillion yen in funding and financing from the government. Japan's transportation ministry looks to break the stalemate with a panel of experts established in April. They will assess the environmental impact on the Oi River and the soundness of JR Central's mitigation plans.

JR Central previously held talks with Shizuoka's expert committee but made little progress. The outcome prompted the transport ministry to form a separate panel. The ministry hopes that JR Central can bolster its argument if a thorough environmental assessment validates the rail operator's plans for the tunnel.

Two people on Shizuoka's expert committee have been appointed to the transport ministry's panel.

"I don't believe Gov. Kawakatsu can ignore the conclusions of our expert committee," a senior transport ministry official said.

But during Friday's meeting, Kawakatsu said Shizuoka's committee will debate whatever conclusion the ministry's panel reaches. Such debate portends further delay for the maglev project.

After the meeting, Kaneko told reporters that the governor was receptive to the request for restarting preparatory work on the tunnel. But Kawakatsu still insisted that JR Central follow local ordinances and enter into an agreement with Shizuoka to preserve the surrounding environment.

"The governor and I were unable to come to terms on whether [an agreement] would proceed rapidly on a working basis," Kaneko said.

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