Japan Starts to Shop Its Bullet Train Technology

Japan Starts to Shop Its Bullet Train Technology
# 12 May 2010 23:46 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. The experimental MLX01 maglev is the world’s fastest train. But it is confined to a 12-mile track. And like the train itself, its technology has been trapped in Japan, APA reports quoting “The New York Times”.
Now, though, Japan wants to begin exporting its expertise in high-speed rail.
On Tuesday, the Central Japan Railway Company took the visiting United States transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, on a test run — a 312-mile-an-hour tryout for the lucrative economic stimulus contracts that the United States plans to award to update and expand its rail network.
“Very fast,” Mr. LaHood said after stepping off the maglev at a track nestled here in mountains west of Tokyo. “We’re right at the start of an opportunity for America to be connected with high-speed, intercity rail,” he said.
The overseas push is a big turnabout for Japan, which long jealously protected its prized bullet train technology. But lately Japan has been forced to rethink that, prompted by a declining market for passenger and freight traffic at home, as well as a flurry of overseas opportunities.
Japan has also been goaded into a new export boldness by the rise of China, a rival whose surge in construction of high-speed rail networks could give Beijing an economies-of-scale edge in the global railway market.
In recent months, top Japanese government officials, including the transport minister, Seiji Maehara, have traveled to the United States angling for a piece of the $13 billion that the Obama administration has pledged for the development of 11 high-speed rail lines throughout the country.
Of particular interest to the Japanese has been a planned $1.25 billion, 84-mile high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando — the first leg of a corridor that state officials hope will eventually reach Miami. Twenty-two companies are bidding for the contract, and Washington is set to announce a winner this year.
Japan has also been keen to market its high-speed rail technologies to emerging economies. Earlier this month, Mr. Maehara visited Vietnam to negotiate financing for a 1,570-kilometer (975-mile) high-speed rail link that will link the country’s south to the capital, Hanoi, in the north.
Japan has confidence in its bullet train technology. In the decades since its first bullet train pulled out of Tokyo Station on Oct. 1, 1964 — just 10 days before the nation held its first Olympics — the high-speed rail network has had no fatal accidents. Japanese officials are also quick to point out the trains’ down-to-the-minute punctuality, despite a heavy passenger flow of 300 million people a year.
Central Japan Railway, which is based in Nagoya and is more commonly known as JR Central, is promoting its N700-I trains, which are in use in Japan and can run at a top speed of about 330 kilometers (205 miles) an hour.
But JR Central has also been showing off its MLX01 maglev bullet train, still in its testing phase, which in 2003 clocked the world’s fastest trial run of 581 kilometers (361 miles) an hour.
Maglev, short for “magnetic levitation,” uses powerful magnets that allow the train to float just above the track, reducing friction. The train starts off on wheels, then gravitates upward after reaching high speeds.
But cost is a problem, with even a limited maglev system costing millions of dollars, said Hitoshi Ieda, a professor in civil engineering at the University of Tokyo. Inexperience with marketing and negotiating overseas could also hamper Tokyo’s overseas push, he said.
If Japan does not start selling maglev trains overseas, it risks losing its technological edge, Mr. Ieda warned. “There is a limit to developing technology in a laboratory,” he said. “To truly advance technology, you need experience, new and challenging projects, and economies of scale.”
The high costs have meant that JR Central, struggling with a decline in passenger traffic, is not set to open its own maglev line anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration wants to make sure that any foreign companies that supply high-speed rail works also bring jobs to the United States.
“The only thing that we ask of manufacturers is, come to America, find facilities to build this equipment in America and hire American workers,” Mr. LaHood said Tuesday.
Deadlines are looming. Of the $13 billion planned in the United States for high-speed rail projects, $8 billion is included in the budget for this fiscal year. Other railroad powerhouses include Bombardier of Canada, Siemens of Germany and Alstom of France, as well as General Electric and Lockheed Martin of the United States.
Unless JR Central can win a contract, the maglev, for now, could stay nothing more than a novelty. On Tuesday, a handful of tourists cheered at an observation deck as the train zipped by.
“It’s so fast, it’s shocking,” said Hiroko Koda, 69, a homemaker from Mie in western Japan who was visiting the track with her husband. “This is the kind of technology that Japan should be proud of,” she said. “I do hope they find customers overseas.”