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Japan's maglev: Now the boring work begins

TOKYO -- JR Tokai has taken the first step toward constructing an underground terminal for the Linear Chuo Shinkansen Line. The main railway operator in central Japan last month began making space for construction materials and machines under the Tokaido Shinkansen tracks near Shinagawa Station, in central Tokyo.

     The world's first commercial "superconducting" maglev train line is slated to go into service in 2027. Passengers can expect to make the 286km journey from Shinagawa to Nagoya in 40 minutes. Plans call for the line to be extended to Osaka in 2045. The distance from Tokyo to Osaka will be 438km. The trip is expected to take one hour and seven minutes.

     Construction costs for the first stretch are estimated at 5.52 trillion yen ($46.4 billion). Total costs for the entire project, all the way to Osaka, are seen reaching 9 trillion yen.

     Magnetic-levitation trains hover over and are propelled by a magnetic track. Trains on the Linear Chuo Shinkansen Line will float about 10cm above the track and will reach a maximum of 500kph. Currently, the fastest commercial maglev train carries passengers between Shanghai and Pudong Airport. Based on German technology which does not use superconductive magnets, it levitates 1cm above the track and reaches a maximum 430kph.

Land needed

This year, JR Tokai will talk to municipalities and respond to questions from residents who live near the planned route.

     The company can only tunnel under its own land. It will start buying plots this year and is widely expected to start drilling the shaft next year.

     Most of the Shinagawa-Nagoya section, 86% to be exact, will comprise a series of long tunnels. JR Tokai will finalize construction specifications and start selecting contractors this year. Already, heavy machinery and construction companies are honing their technologies in anticipation of winning contracts.

The maglev line's tunnel beneath the Japan Alps will have to be horizontally bored, like this one.

     One hopeful is Koken Boring Machine, a Tokyo-based maker of earth-drilling equipment and geologic condition gauges. Part of the planned route runs deep beneath the Japanese Alps, so it will be difficult to drill down vertically. Koken Boring's equipment allows for horizontal drilling. Its geologic equipment can survey conditions 200 meters to 300 meters ahead.

     The company is seeking to develop boring technology that can accurately control the position of an iron bar up to 1km ahead, said Toru Tanaka, Koken Boring's chief engineer.

     Meanwhile, dynamite is out of the question for preparing sections under urban areas. These sections will have to be shield-tunneled. This type of drilling uses a 10-meter-wide cylinder, or shield, that is rotated as it is pushed forward. Obayashi, a big construction company, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Mechatronics Systems have jointly developed a tunnel-boring machine that is capable of drilling 25% faster than conventional bores. The two companies intend to come up with a shield-tunneler that can go 500 meters in a month, twice as fast as 20 years ago.

Comfort goals

Similarly, train makers are seeking to improve vehicle technologies. "If I were to have to choose from 'excellent,' 'good,' and 'fair,' I would say, the [maglev's] ride comfort level is still 'good,'" said Yasukazu Endo, the head of JR Tokai's Yamanashi maglev test line experiment center. "We will raise that level to 'excellent' before the line goes into actual service."

     As such, railway carriage maker Nippon Sharyo, a subsidiary of JR Tokai, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have been working to develop the L0 model maglev train. The hope is for the L0's ride to be as smooth and comfortable as that of the latest Shinkansen N700A model.

     At the municipal level, there is some planning to do. The government of Iida, Nagano Prefecture, estimates that a maglev station will increase the population nearly sevenfold and the number of businesses about eightfold within a 90-minute radius of the station. The Nagano prefectural government plans to spend 50 billion yen to 70 billion yen to develop the area around the station.

     In Nagoya, Nagoya Railroad and other companies plan to spend 200 billion yen revamping the Nagoya station building.

     "Labor costs for construction work will increase as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draws nearer," JR Tokai President Koei Tsuge said. "This means we don't necessarily have sufficient time for [our own] construction plans."

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