Kyushu's bullet train dreams facing extensive delays
Fears of axle corrosion take shine off new tech
TOKYO -- Clouds are forming over Japan's latest shinkansen route connecting an isolated area of high-speed track on the southern island of Kyushu due to come into service in fiscal 2022 with the greater bullet train network as performance issues with new technology create tough decisions on how to open the line.
JR Kyushu is putting plans to adopt free-gauge trains on ice over high costs and the recently discovered issues that were reported Friday by the transport ministry at an evaluation committee meeting.
Free-gauge technology lets a train run on both conventional 1-meter tracks and 1.4-meter shinkansen tracks by adjusting wheel spacing. After testing that wrapped up in March, the evaluation committee determined that there was axle damage after 30,000km of operation. Fearing axle corrosion, the committee decided that the new technology would not meet shinkansen safety standards requiring 600,000km of operation without such issues.
Development of Japan's free-gauge trains began some two decades ago. The project has cost about 50 billion yen ($443 million), with the latest version for the shinkansen completed in 2014. Development will continue, but plans to introduce the new cars will be significantly delayed, a ministry official said.
The setback will drastically impact plans for the Nagasaki route. The current idea for the fiscal 2022 opening is for passengers to board existing limited-express trains from Hakata Station to Takeo-Onsen Station, where they will switch to bullet trains bound for Nagasaki Station.
JR Kyushu had planned for all lines to use only free-gauge trains in fiscal 2025. But now, with the issues uncovered in the safety testing, when the technology will be deployed is anyone's guess.
Free-gauge trains cost about 130% more than standard cars. "We still cannot accept them," based on safety and costs, JR Kyushu President Toshihiko Aoyagi said. Plans to use the technology for the Hokuriku shinkansen extension are also up in the air.
There are two scenarios for the Nagasaki route. One is to hold out for further developments in free-gauge technology and continue to make passengers switch trains. The other is to run shinkansen tracks from Hakata Station to Nagasaki Station.
The first option will not offer customers much in terms of time savings. Profitability will not improve, with the new shinkansen line not connected to the Sanyo Shinkansen line to Shin-Osaka Station. JR Kyushu's railway business continues to run in the red. If the Nagasaki route is also unprofitable, the recently listed company could take heat from shareholders.
On the other hand, running shinkansen track along the entire route would entail sizable construction costs. Construction costs for Saga Prefecture, sandwiched between the larger prefectures of Fukuoka in the northeast and Nagasaki in the southwest, would reach about 80 billion yen alone.