Japanese train sets world speed record, but is it a smart investment?

Japan's experimental high-speed train clocked in at nearly 375 miles per hour, setting a new world record. Is continuing to invest in high-speed transportation good for Japan's economy?

Katsuya Miyagawa/Kyodo News/AP
Yasukazu Endo, general manager of JR Central's Yamanashi Maglev Test Line Test Center, answers a reporter's question after setting new speed record.

Setting a new world record, Central Japan Railway Co. just clocked their experimental high-speed train at 603 kilometers (about 375 miles) per hour.

The country is heavily investing in the maglev industry, competing with other high-speed train competitors in France and China. But even though Japan may be producing cutting-edge technology, critics wonder if it really is a viable industry for a country with declining demand for such transportation.

Maglev, or “magnetic levitation,” trains rely on magnets to lift and propel train cars, greatly reducing friction compared to traditional steel-on-steel tracked trains. On Tuesday Japan succeeded in breaking its own record for fastest train, which was set only last Thursday. A spokesperson said the train covered about 1.1 miles in a little over 10 seconds.

Takeo Ookanda, who runs an exhibition center next to the track, said those in attendance applauded and expressed their excitement at the development and setting of a new record.

"I was moved just like many other visitors here today," Ookanda told CNN. "This maglev project … (increases) the hope that Japan can have a good growth again in the future."

Japan Railways plans to build a high-speed route between Tokyo and Nagoya, which is scheduled to begin service in 2027. By car, the trip can take five hours; with a maglev train, that time is reduced to 40 minutes, according to CNN. The project will cost an estimated $46 billion (5.52 trillion yen).

But questions remain as to whether investment in more high-speed rail is the best financial decision for the small country. Japan faces fierce competition from France and China to sell its bullet-train technology abroad. Shanghai currently operates the world's fastest commercial (compared to Japan's experimental) maglev train service, reaching speeds of roughly 270 miles per hour.

One argument against Japan’s plan to install new high-speed routes is the country’s declining population. Bloomberg reported that the nation's population may fall to 117 million by 2027, down 10 million from the current population. By 2060, the population could be as few as 80 million according to current projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The country simply does not have the demand, said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo.

“[High-speed transportation is] good for growing, developing countries, but not for Japan that’s decreasing in population,” Mr. Merner told Bloomberg. “It’s mis-allocation of resources. Demand for bullet trains will be limited.”

In an effort to revitalize the economy, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backs high-speed transit development, and has also approached the global market to sell the technology. Thus far, there has been little interest from overseas.

Prime Minister Abe is expected to travel to the US on April 26 and meet with President Barack Obama to pitch for a part in developing a high-speed train from Washington D.C. to New York. No plans have been made, but as California struggles to fund construction of a high-speed line after funding cuts, the fate of the proposed Northeast line remains in question. Currently, Amtrak’s Acela Express is the fastest train in the US, traveling at a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour on traditional tracks.

US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy took a test ride on a high-speed train last year. She spoke positively of the technology. She said after her ride:

"This technology is something that will bring great benefits to Japan and hopefully the United States one day."

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