Make Mine Maglev (3)

When last we visited the maglev Chuo Shinkansen, or “linear motor car” in local parlance, construction had been delayed in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the governor, Heita Kawakatsu, had insisted work not proceed until the region’s water supply was addressed. If you want details about that particular problem, see our previous post on the matter here, but the problem itself hasn’t gone away in the two subsequent years, which is a long time for this particular project, already delayed significantly by other problems. 

According to a Sept. 14 article in the Asahi Shimbun, Shin Kaneko, the president of JR Tokai, which is building the train line, has pledged to address the issue of “assuring water resources and conservation of the environment” surrounding the Shizuoka section of the line, which is only 8.9 kilometers in length and all underground. In order to deliver these assurances a meeting was held between Kaneko and Kawakatsu on Sept. 13, but the Asahi reports that nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, their first in two years and three months. Shizuoka’s main gripe is about the water in the Oi River, which is used by residents, and Kawakatsu has insisted that JR Tokai replace any water that is “lost” during construction, a demand that, on the surface at least, sounds difficult though JR Tokai has tentatively agreed, probably because the delay has become untenable and they have to say something to get things moving again. After all, JR Tokai still has 2027 set for completion of the maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya. For his part, Kawakatsu says adamantly that he is not “against” the maglev—Shizuoka finally joined the construction promotion group in July, the last prefecture affected by the maglev to do so. By all means, he wants to see it up and running. But given that Shizuoka doesn’t benefit from it—there will be no maglev Chuo Shinkansen station in the prefecture—he definitely isn’t going to give up something for nothing. 

The matter was covered during a recent discussion on the web news show Democracy Times. Apparently, Kawakatsu made a remark to the effect that the maglev project should shoot for a more attainable short-term goal, like starting partial operation between Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. Given the train’s high speed and the paucity of stations on that stretch of the maglev line, this almost sounds as if Kawakatsu is pulling somebody’s leg. Would anybody use the maglev for such short distances? The governor of Kanagawa was not amused and complained about the remark. As it happened, Kawakatsu had already gone to see for himself how construction was coming along in Kanagawa Prefecture and visited the Sagamihara Station construction site. There, he found out that JR Tokai is planning to build a railyard near the station that hasn’t even been started yet. Given that it will take 11 years to build, it would seem that there’s no way the yard could be completed by 2027. What’s worse is that JR Tokai hasn’t even finalized the purchase of all the land needed. Buying land has always been one of the most difficult aspects of the maglev project, which is why in Tokyo the line is being built 60 meters below the surface. Landowners’ rights don’t go that deep. According to Asahi Shimbun, this matter, which Kawakatsu wasn’t aware of before his inspection trip, caused him to become even more doubtful about the whole project. 

And there’s more. An Aug. 30 article in Nikkei xTech explained how the huge machines used to dig the tunnels—which make up more than 80 percent of the maglev line—have been breaking down. Already, the machine digging the tunnel in the Shinagawa area has broken, or, more specifically, the part of the machine that injects the chemicals into the excavated soil and rock in order to make them easier to remove, has been damaged, and it can’t be fixed until “after 2023.” Also, the massive bit on the machine that is being used to remove the temporary concrete retaining walls of a vertical tunnel in Aichi Prefecture has also been damaged. Nikkei xTech points out that because so much of the maglev tunnel construction is at depths never before attempted, the whole construction process is almost experimental. In fact, the late JR Tokai president Yoshiyuki Kasai, who lobbied for the maglev project, used the construction of an automobile tunnel through the Hida region of the Japan Alps as a means of convincing the land ministry that construction of the maglev was feasible. The construction of the Hida tunnel, which is 10.7 km in length, was considered extremely difficult due to the weak rock structure, high ground water content, and height of the mountain, and it took 8-and-a-half years to complete. The government’s go-ahead for the maglev was granted in 2007, the same year the Hida Tunnel was finished. But as one reporter on Democracy Times pointed out, if it took more than 8 years to dig a tunnel 10.7 km long, how long will it take to complete the whole maglev route, which goes through similar geological environments? Obviously, 2027 is out of the question, but will anyone living today actually live long enough to ride the thing? 

Make mine maglev (1)

In December, four of Japan’s biggest general contractors were accused of bid-rigging with regards to their involvement in the construction of Japan’s maglev shinkansen, vernacularly referred to as the “linear motor car.” Bid-rigging is a fairly common practice among Japanese general contractors, and so far two have owned up to the charges. They will be fined, executives will be shuffled around in a bid for self-reflection, and everyone will get back to work, because the ¥8 trillion project is too important to be sidelined by a mere money scandal.

In terms of media coverage, the scandal provided a kind of shade that was necessary so that the press couldn’t be accused of avoiding other, deeper, more problematic issues regarding the maglev project, which involves building a line between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027. In fact, the scandal is probably the best news that JR Tokai, the arm of Japan Railways that is building the maglev, ostensibly with its own money, could have received since it diverts any media attention away from the deep-seated problems that are already plaguing the project. Since construction has already started, it’s too late to cancel the thing, but it seems likely that the company won’t make its deadline owing mainly to the fact that it still hasn’t purchased all the land it needs.

Because of the technology involved and Japan’s peculiar topgraphy, 246 kilometers, or 86 percent, of the initial route between Tokyo and Nagoya will be built underground, thus making it, basically, a very long subway line. Besides the obvious negative ramifications this aspect of the project could have on its appeal as a tourist attraction, the fact that the tracks have to be underground brings up significant logistical issues, and so the central government passed a special law that said space that is at least 60 meters below the surface is not owned by the title-holder of the land on the surface. The law thus allowed JR Tokai to avoid having to negotiate with landowners along the route planned for the tracks, as long as those tracks are located at least 60 meters below the surface.

However, the surface must still be taken into consideration. For instance, all new stations between Tokyo and Nagoya have to be built on the surface, and often surrounding tracts also have to be bought for ancillary purposes (parking lots, retail outlets, etc.). Also, according to the law, underground railways must provide egress to the surface every hundred meters or so in case of emergency, which means the land on the surface where the exits are built must be purchased.

But the most pressing need for land on the surface is for roads on which dump trucks will transport excavated soil and rock. These roads have not been built yet (for that matter, places to deposit the excavated rock and soil haven’t been designated yet, either), because the land has not been secured. According to Hideki Kashida, a journalist who seems to have made it his life’s work to report on the maglev, approximately 5,000 people own the various tracts of land that JR Tokai will need to buy for the construction of the maglev. The cost, they estimate, is about ¥342 billion. However, some of the land owners are not selling, a big problem in a country that doesn’t have eminent domain.

The reasons for not selling are numerous, and most are personal–basically farming families who are loath to give up their legacies. Some, however, are more practical minded. Environmental groups are protesting the transport roads because they will ruin national parks and the natural environment. The tunnels will destroy aquifers, upon which many rural residents rely for their water–several rivers may dry up as a result. Since the maglev uses up to four times the amount of electricity that a conventional shinkansen uses, residents along the route are afraid of electromagnetic fields.

Kashida says that so far several hundred people have filed lawsuits against JR Tokai to stop or restrict construction, and though courts have traditionally backed up large corporations in such suits, the trials could cause delays. They will also increase the cost of the project, but that doesn’t seem to be a big problem because the central government has already stated its interest in completing the maglev, not just to Nagoya by 2027, but to Osaka by 2045. It’s already guaranteed a ¥3 trillion loan to JR Tokai. With the government in the game, public opposition will become meaningless.

In any case, we don’t expect to see the maglev shinkansen completed–at least to Osaka–within our lifetimes, but we will continue to cover the story in this blog as it develops.