Famously, there has never been a fatal accident – not even when a shinkansen derailed earlier this year after a magnitude 7.4 earthquake. But these are tough times for what is perhaps the world’s most famous train. The pandemic has altered lifestyles in Japan in ways that may be permanent; Zoom calls are increasingly replacing the business day trips that are the backbone of high-speed rail revenue, and overseas tourists remain largely absent.
East Japan Railway Co. says revenue from its bullet trains, which includes the Tohoku Shinkansen route between Tokyo and Moriroka used in Isaka’s original novel, is less than 60% of pre-Covid times, and expects that figure will still be 10% below 2019 levels by the end of its fiscal year next March. On the most famous Tokyo-Osaka route, operated by JR Central and featured in the movie version of “Bullet Train,” ridership remains at just 70% of pre-pandemic levels.
The issue comes just five years before JR Central is supposed to open a brand new 500 kilometer per hour line using magnetic levitation technology that will connect Tokyo and the industrial heartland of Nagoya in just 40 minutes at a cost of over $50. . billion. And that’s far from the only problem trains face.
The maglev project itself looks very unlikely to reach its opening date in 2027, with work halted in Shizuoka Prefecture due to an environmental dispute. Cynics suspect the opposition may have more to do with the fact that while the train will pass through the prefecture, it was not deemed important enough to merit a lucrative stop.
Scheduled to be the fastest in the world when it comes into service, the train will also generate higher energy costs. At a time when Japan faces the prospect of blackouts due to a power shortage, the maglev will use many times the power of an ordinary bullet train for its superconducting magnetic lines.
In Japan’s southernmost island, JR Kyushu will open what is being called the country’s shortest bullet train next month. The new route will connect Nagasaki to Takeo Onsen in Saga Prefecture – but the track, just 67 kilometers long, is not connected to the rest of the Shinkansen network. A dispute between state and local authorities means work to connect to lines serving elsewhere in Kyushu has not even started.
And further north, the Hokkaido Shinkansen is still losing money, $111 million in the last fiscal year, with an average of just 1,700 people taking the train each day. The extension that will connect it to Sapporo in 2030 – the city that could host the Winter Olympics that year – as well as the ski paradise of Niseko cannot come fast enough.
But the question that generates the most discussion among train enthusiasts in Japan concerns the decidedly slower lines. The sustainability of the local roads that are the lifelines that criss-cross much of the rural countryside has become a matter of debate. Ridership on some lines in the JR West area fell to 10% of the level when the company was privatized in the late 1980s, with more adults owning cars and fewer young people to take their place in the train. This led to management talking for the first time about the possibility of closing some of these lines, which the elderly objected to.
The impact of the time changes is also being felt on trains in Tokyo: train operators including JR East have moved the last train forward by 30 minutes, with fewer people staying late due to growing acceptance of the working remotely and a persistent reluctance to travel to Tokyo. drinking binges potentially conducive to the spread of Covid.
All of these point to problems that will only increase as Japan’s population ages and shrinks; the pandemic has only accentuated these long-standing issues. High-speed trains have long been engines of profit for JR companies, which have been privatized in a way that gives everyone a piece of the pie, in exchange for maintaining loss-making rural roads.
But that’s also the beauty of Japanese trains: while being private companies paying dividends, they also operate partly as a public service, whether maintaining old train lines with frequent ridership drop or to advance ambitious projects such as maglev. With the UK considering its ‘High Speed 2’ rail link for the North of England and the US continually hesitating over the merits of high speed rail, it’s good to have a first world nation that still appreciates the role of infrastructure in the face of the relentless pursuit of profit.
Skepticism about maglev is understandable. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that the original Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen itself was derided as being as expensive and functionally useless as the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and the ill-fated WWII battleship Yamato. It’s now the star of a movie, highlighting the international envy a forward-thinking infrastructure project can bring. Who knows, maybe Brad Pitt could even star in a maglev sequel.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.
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