Is Japan’s bullet train an affordable export?

Famed for its outstanding safety record, punctuality and relatively low emissions, Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train is a highly desirable technology for many countries. But despite its eagerness to secure contracts abroad, Japan has so far struggled to convince buyers.


Shinkansen

In 1964, Japan opened the first high-speed rail network in the world between Tokyo and Shin Osaka. Over the years, the Tokaido Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, became internationally famous for its impeccable safety record, with zero fatalities in over 50 years of operation, as well as its punctuality and low pollution levels.

Unsurprisingly, Japan has tried to capitalise on the strengths of Shinkansen technology. In 2013, the government vowed to triple its infrastructure exports, such as bullet trains and nuclear plants, to 30tn yen ($262bn), and the bullet train technology was put at the core of the country’s economic growth strategy. 

However, this hasn’t gone to plan.

One prominent obstacle is the so-called ’Galapagos Syndrome’: the Shinkansen can only be sold and implemented in bulk, as an entire system, complete with the railways, trains and software needed to run them. This makes it a highly expensive package, and it chokes export opportunities, particularly to developing Asian countries.

At the same time, China has emerged as a fierce competitor in the high-speed rail market. In September 2016, it announced it was designing the next-generation trains capable of reaching 500km/h, which can adjust to fit different track gauges around the world.

As mainland publication South China Morning Post noted, “The country is using high-speed rail as the next spearhead to gain a technological edge over the United States, Japan and Europe.”

So far, Japan has had moderate success in exporting the Shinkansen abroad, mainly to richer or more stable economies such as the US, while a number of projects currently in the pipeline are more or less frozen by critical lack of funding.

While the Japanese Government continues to doggedly promote its bullet trains abroad, what countries have expressed most interest so far, and what are some of the new projects on the horizon?

US emerges as prolific market

Private company Texas Central is currently developing a high-speed rail network between Dallas and Houston that will rely on the Japanese bullet train technology.

Trains will be travelling at 205mph and will depart every 30 minutes during peak hours, shortening the journey between the two cities to just 90 minutes. The route will serve an economic area that houses 50,000 ‘super-commuters’, and it is anticipated to pump $36bn into the Texas economy.

The rail corridor will incorporate the N700-I bullet total system, which is the international version of the Tokaido Shinkansen.

Funding for this project comes from entirely private sources. According to its official website, Texas Central is a privately funded company, which together with “a group of primarily Texan investors” will ensure that the development will not dip into public funds.

However, Central Japan Railway Company (JRC), Shinkansen’s operator, “intends to provide long-term and continuous technical support for the system, which means they will apply their years of experience to act in an advisory capacity to ensure the success of the project,” according to the project’s website.

Construction is expected to begin this year, with passenger services to commence as early as 2022.

India’s commitment for its Mumbai – Ahmedabad corridor

A big win secured by Japan last year was India’s 508km bullet train corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

In December 2016, Japanese funding agency JICA signed a tripartite consultancy pact with the Railway Ministry and the National High Speed Rail Corporation for the project.

Initial estimates put the total cost at Rs.97,636 crore ($14bn), an announcement which attracted criticism that the railway could be nothing more than a vanity project for the Modi Government. However, 81% of the line’s funding, $12bn, will be provided by Japan in the form of a loan, with the remaining amount to be covered by India.

Despite both parties’ determination to see the project brought to life, the planning hit a rough patch due to land acquisition rows, a problem shared by hundreds of other railway projects across India’s territory. This usually leads to, not only time delays in construction, but potentially huge cost overruns.

Japan was therefore considering the cheaper and faster option of building an entirely elevated line, but operator Indian Railways is insistent on an underground corridor, local media reports. Any cost overruns are to be jointly shouldered by both countries.

Proving just how keen Japan is to get the project off the ground, a training centre will also be set up in India, where Japanese experts will train 4,000 Indian Railway staff to operate and maintain the future bullet trains.

High expectations for the Singapore – Malaysia line

The governments of Malaysia and Singapore have confirmed their intention to build a 350km high-speed railway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, an important future link in the ASEAN connectivity plan.

Two months before the signing of a bilateral agreement, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used a meeting with his Singaporean counterpart as an opportunity to promote the Shinkansen technology for the route.

According to reports by the Associated Press, Abe told Lee Hsien Loong that he has high expectations that Singapore will pick the Japanese Shinkansen "as a symbol of cooperation between the two countries".

The bilateral agreement ensures the commitment that Singapore and Malaysia will be responsible with the design, build, finance and maintenance of the rail and stations on their own territories. Tendering is currently underway and a development partner is expected to be chosen early this year.

Taiwan’s mixed reception of the Shinkansen

Taiwan’s high-speed railway (THSR), which runs along the country’s west coast between Taipei and Kaohsiung, has been using Japan's technology since it opened in January 2007.

The network uses rolling stock and electrical and mechanical equipment supplied by the Japanese-based Taiwan Shinkansen Corporation. The project also incorporated signalling and train control equipment, power supply, communications systems and earthquake warning systems.

But over the course of eight years since its inauguration, the system hasn’t fared so well. The Taiwanese bullet train operator amassed huge debt, and in 2015 the government was forced to save THSR from bankruptcy with an approximate $1bn bailout.

The company was plunged into crisis when it struggled to fill seats on the trains. Despite its convenience, the high-speed railway couldn’t compete with much cheaper options, such as bus or more conventional rail routes.

Following the bailout, its performance improved and three more stations were added to the route by the end of that year. In June 2016, a brand new station was opened in Taipei, improving access to key economic areas of the city.

Vietnam struggles to fulfil its high-speed ambitions

Back in 2009, Vietnam also expressed its interest in using the Japanese system across a planned 1,000-mile high-speed line between the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

If lifted off the ground, the line would connect two metropolitan areas that house 10% of the country’s entire population. But almost a decade after it was first announced, the project remains nothing more than an aspiration.

The strapped-for-cash Vietnamese Government is forced to wait for funding from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank before it can make any progress.

Previously the project was rejected due to cost concerns, but in August 2016 the Ministry of Transport requested an update on the feasibility studies submitted three years prior.

According to Deputy Transport Minister Nguyen Ngoc Dong, the government had asked the Ministry of Transport to conduct a pre-feasibility study that would be presented to the government for evaluation in 2018.

The pre-feasibility report will analyse the effectiveness, scale and ability to raise funds and a more realistic timetable, Dong said.