The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

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Thursday, October 16, 2003

Japanese Maglev Project Links and Lowdown

Home of More Transit Links Than You can Possibly Check(tm), Unless you have no life other than websurfing

"Truth passes through three phases: 1) It is ridiculed. 2) It is violently opposed. 3) It is accepted as self-evident." Albert Schopenhouer. In the United States, rail is currently passing through Phase Two.

From the Cabalmaster:

The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal is pleased to bring to you the following “links and lowdown” related to one of the world’s more interesting transit projects, the “Linimo” magnetic-levitation line nearing completion near Nagoya, Japan. Known for planning purposes as the “Tobu-kyuryo Line, this was built as a suburban connector and also to provide transportation to an exposition planned for 2005. The Linimo home page is here but it’s in Japanese only. The transportation agency of Aichi Prefecture has a page on Linimo here but in Japanese only. The prefesture’s “Nagoya Tobu Kyuryo Construction Office” has a page here but again in Japanese only. Japanese-compatible software and a Japanese-language browser may be required for proper viewing.

The official English homepage of Expo 2005 Aichi Japan is

Japan has had two independent maglev development efforts underway for the past four decade, and the intended applications were very different. JNR (Japanese National Railways) worked on high-speed intercity transport. JAL (Japan Air Lines) worked on technology for relatively low-speed city-to-airport links. The JAL system, which has little in common with the JNR/JR high speed system aside from magnetic levitation, was dubbed "HSST," for High Speed Surface Transport.

Japan Air Lines? Maglev?

[Farms? In Berkeley? The correct answer to this one is “Yes, long ago; farmers joined forces with the state university to incorporate a separate city to prevent annexation into Oakland.]

This was actually a remarkably far-sighted move. Japan has a sparse internal air network because many good-sized cities do not have airports. This in turn reflects the availability of flat land on which to build them. Somebody figured out that "new" airports would have to be built far from the cities they served, and that the chances of securing government funds for this would be improved if the problem of ground transport were solved. JAL apparently envisioned construction of new regional airports with HSST links to major urban centers. However, the impact of the 1974 and 1979 oil price increases on the Japanese economy eventually led JAL to realize that the government wasn't going to pick up the tab for this grand scheme.

JAL spun off HSST technology to the "HSST Corporation" in 1985. Short test lines were built for word's fairs at Tsukuba (1985), Vancouver (1986) and possibly elsewhere, but paying customers did not appear.

HSST Corporation opened a small (0.9-mile) test line along a Nagoya Railroad branch in 1991. This has a minimum curve radius of 100 meters and a maximum grade of 7 per cent. This was built as a joint public-private venture: of the construction cost (450 million yen), the Nagoya Railroad paid 56 percent, the HSST Corporation paid 22 percent, and Aichi Prefecture paid 22 percent. Investors anticipated that a HSST line would be built between central Nagoya and a planned new airport south of the city (built on a man-made island). The prefectural government had an interest in the airport project, but also had an apparent interest in turning Nagoya into a center of maglev technology.

HSST technology, promoted by the HSST Development Corporation from 1993, scored an apparent sale in 1995, when Hiroshima announced plans for an airport-access line. This would extend 5 miles from the airport to the nearest JR-West station, and would eventually be extended to central Hiroshima.

Then, in mid-1996, the eastern Kyushu city of Miyazaki opened a short (0.9-mile) rail branch to serve its airport. The airport line is elevated and single-track; the project also included electrification of 1.6 miles of connecting line. Miyazaki, which has little more than 300,000 people, thus joined the select group of cities with an airport railway.

This project is not widely known outside of Japan -- after all, Miyazaki is not exactly a major tourist destination. We'll bet the gadget salesmen would like to keep it that way, for the Miyazaki airport access project had far-reaching impacts within Japan. Sendai decided to build a five-mile single-track airport railway branch instead of a metro extension. Hiroshima decided to build conventional rail instead of HSST (which would permit through service to the city center from the start). Nagoya decided to serve its new regional airport by extending a Nagoya Railroad branch. And so forth.

Nagoya proper has half the population density of Tokyo and Osaka. Since half the density also means half the population within the same area, Nagoya has not been able to finance metro expansion at the rate that Osaka and Tokyo have. Rail lines, where they exist, carry heavy traffic but large parts of the region have no rail service.

The "original" subway line was pushed to the eastern city limit (Fujigaoka), with a significant mileage on viaduct. An "onward" extension to Nagakute has been on the drawing board for some years.

A 1992 report by the Transport Policy Council recommended 25 miles of new rail lines in the region by 2008. One of these was the "Tobu-kyuryo" (Eastern Hills) line, to extend 5.5 miles between Fujigaoka and Yakusa (on the Aichi Peripheral Railway). This was outlined using some form of intermediate-capacity technology. Obviously, construction of a full-scale metro extension through this area could not be justified. Since the metro line uses standard gauge and third rail, and the Aichi Peripheral uses 1067mm gauge and 1500V dc overhead, there is no possibility of through working.

Somebody apparently decided that this route would make a good "working prototype" for HSST. Makes sense: not too long, Aichi Exposition coming up in 2005, and would provide a useful regional connection thereafter. Another factor: "Hills" in Japan do not imply nice gentle slopes, but rather abrupt rises. Sounds like a good place to put that alleged hill-climbing ability to the test. About 0.8 mile will be underground, and the remainder on viaduct. The line will have 8 intermediate stations.

The company is the Aichi Rapid Railway. This is a public-private ("third-sector") joint venture including Aichi Prefecture and on-line local governments, several banks, the Nagoya Railroad, the Chubu Electric Power Co [now that's "supplier financing!"], and automaker Toyota. The designed maximum service frequency is 6 minutes, and the designed maximum speed is 100 km/h (62 mph). The planned running time is 15 minutes, implying a commercial speed of about 20 mph. The estimated construction cost (this probably dates to the the start of construction) was 40.5 billion yen, about $320 million, or $60 million per mile.

So, despite all the hype and claims one might hear (and we expect to hear a lot from the maglev boosters), this is another Japanese "special-purpose" line serving a small niche market. If there was any potential for significantly higher traffic volumes than are now forecast, the line would be built for through service by subway trains.

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