New maglev Shinkansen to run underground for 86% of initial route

September 19, 2013


There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but not much else for passengers to see when they eventually travel on Japan’s new 500 kph maglev train.

Operator Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) announced Sept. 18 that the proposed route between Tokyo and Nagoya will mostly run underground.

Tunnels will account for 86 percent of the 286-kilometer section on the Chuo Shinkansen Line scheduled to open in 2027.

This has raised the possibility that costs will be inflated, completion will be delayed and riders will be disappointed.

Tracks on the above-ground sections will also mostly be covered by soundproof concrete hoods. JR Tokai said it will consider allowing open views on limited sections if requested to do so by local governments.

One candidate is the Kofu basin in Yamanashi Prefecture, from which Mount Fuji and the Southern Japan Alps can be seen. The existing Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which links Tokyo and Osaka, offers a magnificent view of the nation’s tallest peak.

The magnetically levitated train will take a minimum of 40 minutes to cover the distance from Tokyo to Nagoya. That is 50 minutes shorter than the conventional Shinkansen. The Chuo Shinkansen Line is expected to be extended to Osaka by 2045.

Overall construction costs are estimated to exceed 9 trillion yen ($90 billion). Just under two-thirds, or 5.4 trillion yen, will be spent on the Tokyo-Nagoya section alone. The entirety of the central government’s public works budget for the current fiscal year was 5.2 trillion yen.

Some tunnels will run more than 40 meters below ground. The stations in Tokyo and Nagoya will be 40 meters and 30 meters deep, respectively.

One key challenge will be the 25-km tunnel planned through the Southern Japan Alps with its soft bedrock.

A delay in construction there will lead to cost and schedule overruns.

The 3,000-meter-high Southern Japan Alps, officially called the Akaishi Mountain Range, straddle Nagano, Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures.

Geologist Nobuyuki Matsushima, 82, who lives in Nagano Prefecture and has traveled the area for more than 60 years, criticized the plan’s straight route as “reckless.”

“It is nothing but arrogance and disrespect for nature,” he said.

JR Tokai once considered bypassing the Southern Japan Alps, but eventually decided to tunnel through the mountain range to reduce travel time.

Yoshiomi Yamada, president of JR Tokai, has waved off some of the concerns, saying Japan has advanced tunneling technologies.

At a news conference on Sept. 18, however, Yamada conceded, “We must wait until construction work starts to see what technical problems we will face.”

Another problem is what to do with the debris from the tunnel excavation, which is estimated to total 62.34 million cubic meters of earth, rocks, sand and mud--enough to fill about 50 Tokyo Dome baseball stadiums.

Work in the Southern Japan Alps alone would generate 9.5 million cubic meters of such debris, four times more than was produced for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Hitoshi Togashi, a researcher at the Nagano Environmental Conservation Research Institute studying environmental geology, said it is a mistake to believe tunneling will not affect the environment above ground.

“There is no space where (such a large amount of soil) can be disposed of in the prefecture,” he said. “I doubt it is possible to dispose of it safely and not cause some sort of environmental impact.”

Another area of concern is how to deal with natural disasters.

The Chuo Shinkansen Line is designed to serve as an alternative means of transportation in case the Tokaido Shinkansen Line is disrupted, for example, by a mega-quake centered along the Nankai Trough off Japan’s Pacific coast.

JR Tokai says ground shaking will not affect the levitating trains, and guideways for the trains will keep them from leaving their tracks. It also says the shocks from earthquakes are less severe underground than on the surface.

Still, passengers will need to escape to the ground level using elevators and stairs if a train comes to a stop in a tunnel. A 16-car Shinkansen train can carry up to 1,000 passengers.

Forty-seven emergency exits are planned for the tunnels, about one every 5 kilometers in urban areas.

Moreover, the Chuo Shinkansen Line will cross several active fault lines.

JR Tokai plans to bolster quake resistance in those areas by using high-strength concrete, and by fixing bolts to bedrock.

It also says tracks will be laid to allow trains to cross active fault lines in the shortest distance possible. However, one researcher said the plan is no guarantee of safety, particularly if a fault moves.

Securing sufficient electricity may pose an additional problem because all the nation’s nuclear reactors were idled in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The amount of electricity needed for each run on the Chuo Shinkansen Line is 35,000 kilowatts at its peak. That compares with the 10,000 kilowatts required for a similar run on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.

The maglev bullet train will run at a maximum speed of 505 kph, or 70 percent faster than a conventional Shinkansen train.

Yamada said future technological innovation will eventually reduce power consumption. Trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line currently use about half the electricity required for first-generation models.

Between Tokyo and Nagoya, four stations are planned, one each in Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Nagano and Gifu prefectures.

JR Tokai is considering charging passengers 11,500 yen ($115) for the trip from Tokyo to Nagoya, 700 yen higher than is currently charged on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.

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The L0 series maglev Shinkansen train during a test run on the Yamanashi Maglev Test Track on Aug. 29 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The L0 series maglev Shinkansen train during a test run on the Yamanashi Maglev Test Track on Aug. 29 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • The L0 series maglev Shinkansen train during a test run on the Yamanashi Maglev Test Track on Aug. 29 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • An image of the Chuo Shinkansen Line in Yamanashi Prefecture with Mount Fuji in the background (Provided by JR Tokai)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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