China and Japan race to dominate the future of high-speed rail

By River Davis, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

Japan and China are racing to build a new type of ultra-fast, levitating train, seeking to demonstrate their mastery over a technology with big export potential.

Magnetic levitation, or maglev, trains use powerful magnets to glide along charged tracks at super fast speeds made possible by the lack of friction. A handful of short distance and experimental maglev trains are already in operation, but Asia's two biggest economies are vying to develop what would be the world's first long-distance intercity lines.

On one side is Central Japan Railway Co.'s 9 trillion yen ($86 billion) maglev that's expected to connect Tokyo and Osaka by 2037. On the other is China's 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) on-again, off-again project that will run between Shanghai and the eastern port city of Ningbo. After several false starts, it's now forecast to be completed by around 2035. Japan's is more expensive largely because of the amount of excavation that will be required to tunnel through the mountainous countryside.

If Japan and China are able to unveil their long-distance projects successfully by their due dates, it should give them a leg up when they look to export the next-generation technology, rail experts say. At stake is a share of the estimated more than $2 trillion global market for rail infrastructure projects.

"Maglev technology has huge export potential, and China and Japan's domestic projects are like shop windows into how the technology could be successfully implemented abroad," said Christopher Hood, a professor at Cardiff University who's studied and written a book about Japan's shinkansen.

Japan, the creator of the world's first bullet train, or shinkansen, has long been a top supplier to global fast-rail projects. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targeted infrastructure exports including high-speed rail technologies as a key plank of economic growth.


But over the past decade, Chinese competitors, often willing to supply parts and know how for cheaper, have been catching up. In 2015, Japanese suppliers lost out to Chinese rivals in a bid to build Indonesia's first high-speed railway from capital Jakarta to Bandung in West Java. Japan was eventually asked to rejoin the project after it began to face significant delays.

Japan is a "strong rival" in developing regular bullet and high-speed maglev trains, according to an article that appeared in July in state-backed China Daily and that quoted a professor who specializes in railways. This "tough reality" has pushed China to make quick breakthroughs in developing maglev trains "to ensure the country has adequate market share in both future domestic and global markets," the report said.

The maglev line that will connect financial hub Shanghai and Ningbo, via Hangzhou, is part of a plan by China's Zhejiang provincial government to inject 3 trillion yuan into building out the province's rail lines.

"There's the sense that in the technological world, Japan is falling further and further behind China, so if it can realize this new technology first, it would be an issue of immense national pride," Hood said. He points to China's recent development of a high-speed train prototype that can run on different track gauges, something Japan has been trying to master with varying degrees of success for several years.


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