The end of the line for the Shinkansen?

Whenever you pass through a JR East train station in Tokyo, sleek images of the latest Shinkansen bullet trains can be found adorning platforms, stairwells, and concourses. The elongated jade snout of the arrow-like E5, its smaller, red cousin the E6, and the elegantly curved figure of the E7 appear primed to speed off the walls, tantalizing harried urban commuters with the promise that their hard-earned money can be translated into a comfortable weekend escape to an onsen in Akita or the ski slopes of Nagano. Indeed, living in Tokyo, there are few pleasures greater on a Friday evening than leaving the office early and navigating the same commuter crowds as always, only to slip past the green ticket gates into the more civilized realm of eki-ben, cold cans of beer, and omiyage gift boxes that mark the beginning of a smooth and relaxing Shinkansen journey to some faraway destination.

The Shinkansen has long served as the most recognizable symbol of Japanese technological prowess, ever since the rounded nose of the Type 0 trains popularized the term “bullet train” when they debuted on the world’s first high-speed route from Osaka to Tokyo in 1964. The closest analogy in the American national psyche may be weapons systems like the F-117, F-16 and B-2 that I was taught by my peers to revere as an elementary school boy. Shinkansen trains are the quintessential fetish object of Japanese adolescent boys, inspiring a different kind of awe than a Ford or Toyota sports car, or a consumer item like an iPhone or Sony Walkman ever could. Like fighter jets, Shinkansen represent the technological culmination of a collective project, an object that one could never own but in which one can feel a sense of ownership and national pride. Just as American children learn to love their fighter jets through plastic models and films like Top Gun and Independence Day, Japanese adolescents play with Shinkansen figures that transform into Gundam-style robots, and watch the bullet train make a kamikaze attack on Godzilla in a recent remake of the classic monster flick. And like the F-22 or F-35 in an age of drone warfare, the Shinkansen is perhaps a technology that is no longer needed.

The Shinkansen network has been in a state of constant expansion for more than half a century, driven by a powerful lobby that links heavy industry, construction companies, railways, local politicians and the tourism industry. According to a 2013 poll, more than half of respondents supported continued expansion. The rail companies cultivate public support through concerted PR campaigns. Several years ago, I had a few hours to spare in Nagoya during a cross-country trip, so I decided to make an excursion to the SC-Maglev Railway Park, a railway museum run by JR Central and located at in Nagoya’s port area.

The first, darkened, room visitors enter contains a steam locomotive, an early bullet train engine, and prototype maglev train arrayed beneath a video screen that recounts new records set during a century of railroad development as dramatic music plays. A wall features illustrations indicating the progression of transportation technology, from men pulling sleds and carrying palanquins, to carriages and bicycles, and eventually modern trains. The main hall is filled with retired train sets. Along the walls, panels and videos explain the many small miracles that keep the Tokaido Shinkansen, the world’s busiest high-speed rail line, running day in and day out: schedules that trim headways to as little as two minutes, the permanent crews of thousands of maintenance workers who descend on the tracks every night to reinforce concrete, swap out rails, and fine-tune catenary wires.

Of course, the facility is first and foremost a corporate propaganda center, advancing an argument that is presented with striking teleological clarity: speed is good, and developing technology to attain ever higher speeds is the destiny of humankind. This message has been advanced in many forms pretty much since the dawn of modernity. Most members of the public are unlikely to question its premise as they are persuaded of the importance of spending enormous sums to build ever-faster trains.

JR Central is a company inextricably linked to the Shinkansen. In the last quarter, its bullet train business earned more than 12 times the revenue of all its other railway operations combined (in contrast, more than 50% of JR East’s revenue comes from Tokyo-area commuter services, with less than 30% from high-speed services). In fact, JR Central only exists because the Tokaido Shinkansen is such a massively profitable business. When the national railways were broken up into private companies in the 1980s, it was decided that giving the bullet train line to either JR East or JR West, which serves Osaka, would create too large a behemoth. Instead, another company was carved out to run the line and the much smaller commuter network of Nagoya.

As a result, JR Central has been highly focused on Shinkansen technology, and in recent years began construction on a magnetically levitated, mostly underground train that will link Tokyo and Osaka at more than twice the speed of current services and will likely cost upwards of $100 billion. This project is the what the SC-Maglev Railway Park is designed to sell. Personally I found the simulator where virtual mountains fly past at 500 km/h to be more similar to being in an airplane at take-off, devoid of the pleasures of rail travel. The first section linking Tokyo and Nagoya is planned to be finished in 2027. I have written in the past about the maglev bullet train, including its negative environmental impact and shaky economic justification. JR Central is essentially pouring the profits—more than $5 billion in 2018—from the most successful and efficient high-speed line in the world into a huge expansion of capacity that is due to be completed at a time when the Japanese population will be in free-fall and business travel may be superseded by new telecommunications technologies. Its astronomical cost and wasteful energy consumption make it a particularly dubious project, but many of the issues associated with the super-fast maglev are simply accentuated versions of problems inherent in building new bullet train lines in a shrinking society.

Japan’s population has shrunk by nearly two million since 2010, and 40 of 47 prefectures lost population in 2018. Even more ominously for Japan’s regions, a government think tank projected in 2014 that roughly half of the country’s municipalities face the prospect of demographic collapse by midcentury. Nonetheless, Shinkansen lines are being extended into the far reaches of Hokkaido, Hokuriku, and Kyushu, due to be inaugurated as many of these local areas enter the later stages of depopulation. Remarkably, local politicians in even more rural areas such as Shikoku continue to call for the national government to revive 1970s plans to extend lines to their own cities and towns, arguing that high-speed linkages will spur economic revitalization.

Shinkansen expansion is simply suffering from the law of diminishing returns. All 18 metropolitan areas with populations exceeding one million are now linked to the Shinkansen network, with the exception of Sapporo (population 2.34 million), which will see the Shinkansen arrive in 2030. Located at the northern extremity of Japan, Sapporo will not benefit from connections in both directions like cities in Japan’s pacific belt, and it is close to the distance from Tokyo at which rail struggles to compete with air travel. The rest of Hokkaido is fast depopulating. Several of the enormous stations along the first leg of the Hokkaido Shinkansen that opened in 2016 only see around 60 passengers per day each.

Two other ongoing extension projects make even less economic sense, but reveal how local politicians revert to the old engines of growth as their regions collide with interminable population decline. The Hokuriku Shinkansen, most recently extended to Toyama and Kanazawa in 2015, is scheduled to be opened as far as Tsuruga on the coast north of Kyoto in 2021. Until 2016, policy makers were debating between three potential routes to extend the line all the way to its planned terminus in Osaka. The shortest and cheapest would connect to the existing Shinkansen around Maibara, therefore making use of existing tracks for much of the route, and also allow the fastest travel times to Osaka and Nagoya while costing the least. Instead, the government chose the longest and most expensive route that would loop westward through sparsely populated coastline and mountains before traveling under Kyoto and Osaka in a new tunnel, requiring new underground stations to be built. At $20 billion, the route is expected to cost four times more than the alternative, but will provide contracts for local construction companies for decades to come.

The most vexed of the currently underway extensions is the link from Fukuoka to Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu. Half of the new tracks are nearing completion, but are cut off from the rest of the network by a 60 kilometer gap. Planners had initially hoped to stitch this section together by developing a new type of train that could switch between the wide-gauge Shinkansen and existing tracks, but the technology proved too difficult. Nagasaki is now pushing for the whole line to be constructed as Shinkansen order to avoid a debacle, but the local government in the intermediate section is balking at paying its share of the cost.

It is not entirely clear why Nagasaki wants the Shinkansen at this late stage to begin with. One of Japan’s most beautiful cities, Nagasaki nonetheless faces a grim demographic future. In 2018, the population declined by 4,832 to 421,799. The net outflow of residents was the worst in the country. Bullet trains tend to exacerbate the decline of such small cities with a “straw effect,” drawing business, students, and residents into larger regional centers such as Fukuoka, Sendai, or Okayama. The Shinkansen is likely only to reinforce the Fukuoka metropolitan area’s centricity within Kyushu. Ten times the size of Nagasaki, Fukuoka is one of the few metropolitan areas that is still growing in Japan, as it sucks population from less fortunate cities such as Kitakyushu, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima, all connected in less than an hour by Shinkansen.

The reality of the Shinkansen in an era of population decline is that local economic development is increasingly a zero-sum game. I say this as someone who loves Japan’s miraculous rail system, and fervently believe the United States should break ground tomorrow on a dozen or more high-speed rail corridors. Japan’s continued expansion is no longer driven by sound economic reasoning. To stop building Shinkansen would be to abandon the narrative of progress as defined by speed and growth. But this is perhaps precisely what post-growth Japan needs in order to address its real problems.

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