May 12, 2015 1:00 pm JST
US-bound trains?

Maglev exports proving tall order for Japan

TOSHIKI YAZAWA, Nikkei staff writer

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took a test ride on this train at JR Tokai's Central Yamanashi Maglev Test Line in Tsuru, Japan. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- The Japanese government is pushing to export its maglev train system to the U.S. The path to a deal looks anything but smooth.

     Development of the system was led by JR Tokai, the main railway operator in central Japan. The technology uses powerful magnets to levitate train cars and push them along a guideway at high speed. Japan's government hopes to bring the system to the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

     The ambitious plan has attracted interest from influential American politicians, including Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But a source close to the White House said President Barack Obama "is not so enthusiastic" about the project. One reason may be the exorbitant cost: A segment between Washington and Baltimore alone would reportedly require as much as 1 trillion yen ($8.28 billion).

     Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems unfazed. 

     During Abe's visit to the U.S. in late April, he attended a luncheon with Biden at the State Department. The two men spoke about the maglev line and the vice president was quoted by a person familiar with the talks as saying: "I am well aware of Shinzo's desire to get the maglev [project] going."

     In a U.S.-Japan joint statement released the same day about what the two nations' leaders agreed on, cooperation on high-speed railway infrastructure, including maglev trains, was described as a priority.

     Initially, the U.S. side was reluctant to include this language, as it could be interpreted as a sign that the countries had struck a maglev deal. But Japan's ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae, acting on Abe's strong insistence, lobbied for it in direct talks with Evan Medeiros, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs. 

     The state of Maryland, home to Baltimore, has applied to the federal government to use $28 million left over from an unrealized maglev project on the east side of the Mississippi River. The money would go toward an environmental assessment for the Washington-Baltimore stretch.

     Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is also keen to introduce maglev trains, is scheduled to visit Japan in June. The Japanese government plans to give him a ride on the maglev test line in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Signals and noise

Abe's urgency for exporting the trains mirrors China's aggressive efforts to tap the global railway market. Beijing is also angling for high-speed rail contracts in North America.

     Last autumn, a Chinese consortium had just such a contract revoked in Mexico due to criticism of the murky bidding process. Despite the setback, an insider at the U.S. transportation authority said China "is trying to lay the groundwork for extending [a high-speed railway system] from Mexico to the [U.S.] state of Oklahoma via Dallas in the future."

     This hypothetical route could create headaches for another JR Tokai plan: building a bullet train line between Dallas and Houston. 

     Aside from China, Japan has its own issues to figure out. There is no consensus on a key question: how much the government and state-affiliated banks should support overseas infrastructure projects that do not directly benefit Japanese taxpayers. There is also a wide gap between the government and private sector over how to share cost burdens.

     A source at Japan's transport authority said Tokyo and Washington need to hammer out a strong railway accord -- one that includes support from the U.S. federal and state governments in return for Japanese human resources, funding and safety technologies, such as automatic train control systems and earthquake-resistance mechanisms.

     Perhaps, the biggest obstacle to Abe's ambition may be perception among the American public.

     Richard Lawless, former deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Defense who is now president and CEO of U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, the entity responsible for selling JR Tokai's systems stateside, said residents of areas that would host the maglev line are concerned about noise -- even though the floating trains are quieter than their wheeled predecessors.

 

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