JR Tokai (Central Japan Rail), which manages train lines more-or-less between Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures (as well as the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka), recently announced station sites for their planned high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) line.
Photo via JR Tokai
The line will begin in Shinagawa in south downtown Tokyo (where there is already a shinkansen station), head to Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture (a fair bit north of Yokohama), then to Kofu in Yamanashi prefecture and Nakatsugawa in Gifu prefecture before arriving near Nagoya. Running at speeds of up to 500kph, the new line is projected to cover the 286km route in as little as 40 minutes (current shinkansen take about 90 minutes to go from Tokyo to Nagoya, and standard local trains take roughly 6+ hours).
The environmental assessment of the proposed route is expected to take about three years, after which construction is scheduled to start in 2014. The route will use the 48km test track already built in Yamanashi prefecture, and JR Tokai projects the total cost will be about 5.1 trillion yen, or about US$60 billion (although confidence in predicting the cost of a 300-km, decade-long construction project seems laughable. My guess: take that figure and triple it).
I’m torn on this. On the one hand, ultra-high-speed levitating trains are quite possibly the coolest thing I could hope to see in my lifetime. On the other, this is a hell of a lot money to be spending on a massive project that provides only an incremental benefit over the (also extremely expensive to build) system already in place. Plus, the current plan only connects two cites. I’ve been to Sagamihara and Kofu; they are not bustling metropoli by any stretch of the imagination (while Sagamihara could be called close to Yokohama, the fastest train connecting them takes 35 minutes, longer than the maglev trip from Sagamihara to Nagoya). Some sources have estimated that simply converting the existing Tokaido shinkansen, linking Tokyo to Nagoya along the coast, would cost only one-tenth as much.
While I would love to zoom through the mountains at over 500kph, I can’t help thinking there are better uses for the money. Developing low-speed (~100kph) maglev for mass inter- and intra-city use would be a good start, as their lack of moving parts translates to lower maintenance costs, and they produce far less noise or pollution. This has already been achieved with the Linimo line near Nagoya, although because the line doesn’t connect major population centers (it was built for the 2005 World Expo and links the park with outer Nagoya), current ridership is low. Still, going this route could turn an incredibly expensive prestige project that few would use on a regular basis into an actual money-maker with wide-spread support.