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Shinkansen: the backbone of the Japanese economy

Interview - December 13, 2016

An outstanding safety, reliability and performance record has made Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen an international symbol of its innovation, precision and technological ambition. President of the Central Japan Railway Company Koei Tsuge discusses the impact it has had on the country, its milestones achieved, and the latest developments on the next-generation maglev system.



What is the role, in your opinion, that railways will play in the recovery of Japan’s economy?

In our case, the Tokaido Shinkansen connects Tokyo, Nagoya and Shin-Osaka. This region is considered the backbone of Japan. The Tokaido Shinkansen has made an immense contribution to rebuild the Japanese economy after World War II. That is why we might as well say that the Shinkansen is the backbone of the Japanese economy. First, the fact that it connects Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, which in terms of land area only accounts for 24% of the total land area of Japan, when it comes to the population it accounts for about 60% of the total population. In terms of the GDP, it is even more important representing about 65%. On a daily basis, the number can go as high as 445,000 people traveling every day. During the 52-year history of the Shinkansen we have carried about 5.9 billion people. It remains clear that the Tokaido Shinkansen has made a large contribution to Japanese culture and economy.

The Tokaido Shinkansen has the best technology in the world in the industry of transportation. If we take safety, in our operation history, we have not had a single casualty or a single fatal accident taken place during the use of the Tokaido Shinkansen. It is a record that we are very proud of. In terms of punctuality, the average delay is as low as 0.2 minutes, namely 12 seconds. Currently we are running at 285 km/h, and the frequency of the trains last years was 358 trains per day. At peak times, we would be running 15 trains in each way per hour. Environment-wise, our carbon footprint is very small: for example, energy consumption is one eighth of aircrafts from big airline companies.

We can say that the Japanese economy would not have developed the way we see it today without the Tokaido Shinkansen.


JR Central was incorporated on April 1987 after being spun off from the government-run Japanese National Railways (JNR). The privatization was finally completed in 2006. Now, your network includes not only the Tokaido Shinkansen but also a network of 12 conventional lines on the Nagoya and Shizuoka areas. What do you consider that are the main milestones achieved by the company during these 30 years?

I would like to start by describing some of the changes we witnessed during these last 30 years. The biggest is the fact that we used to be a national railway, owned and operated by the Japanese government. Then, we were separated and privatized. Prior to the privatization, since we were a national company, we were running at a deficit at that time. Therefore, we had low amounts of funds available to spend on capital investment. This meant that we were not able to improve our cars or anything else. On the contrary, during the 30 years running as private company we achieved to be profitable and have the required capital to invest in our technology, stations improvement, cars’ speed and comfort. During the 23 years JNR operated the Shinkansen as a public company, we had one single model of car, the zero type. Whereas ever since JR Central’s privatization, we have been changing the model of the car every 6 to 7 years and making improvements. We increased the speed back in 1992 from 220km/h to 270km/h and in 2015 this was further increased to 285km/h. The second improvement was in terms of punctuality; I said currently that the delay time is 0.2 minutes, but during the period when we were owned by the state, we had 3 minutes of delay. Also, the frequency of trains has also been improved: in our days in JNR we were running 230 trains and now we are running around 358. Finally, in terms of environment, compared to the zero type, our current energy consumption represents only 51% of the amount used back then.

For the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, we are currently developing a new car model, the N700S type. This new car is light in weight and also very flexible. In other words, our 16 cars single trains could be reduced to 12 or 8-car trains. It has a flexibility that will make it suitable to be used in places like Texas and Taiwan as well.

In terms of marketing and sales we are currently carrying out ticketless sales and express services with 3 million people using this service as members. 30% of the tickets sold for Shinkansen are through this special express service. Next summer we will make it possible to non-Japanese foreign visitors with their credit cards and IC cards to reserve tickets on the spot.

Regarding our conventional lines, we are witnessing a decline in the Japanese population, so we have to make our operations more efficient, and increase their use by tourists. On one of our express trains called Hida, which connects Nagoya and Takayama, 20 to 30% of the passengers are foreign tourists.


Of course, the maglev, a very long-term project, has been and will create several of your main milestones. Last December, full-fledged construction work of the Chuo Shinkansen began with the digging of a 25km tunnel between Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. With a top speed of 500km/h, the maglev train is expected to connect Tokyo with Nagoya in 40 minutes. The tunneling work will take more than 10 years to complete. Maglev operations between Shinagawa and Nagoya are expected to begin in 2027. What is the significance of the Chuo Shinkansen project?

Over 50 years have passed since the inauguration of the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train, so we must think of drastic ways to respond to aging in the future. Also, as a matter of fact, the areas where the Tokaido Shinkansen runs through have possibilities of a large-scale earthquake. Therefore we believe that in case the Tokaido Shinkansen is stopped and we cannot operated it, this will come a major blow to the Japanese economy. Therefore, we see the maglev as a bypass which will backup the Shinkansen.

Two years ago, on October 17th, we have received the permit from the national government to start construction works. We have already signed contracts and started some of the constructions in the South Alps area of Japan. We are also starting some works at the Shinagawa and Nagoya stations. In 11 years’ time, in 2027, we will see the maglev running at 500km/h connecting Shinagawa and Nagoya. Since the construction of Chuo Shinkansen is tough work, we will put all our effort into it.


To what extent do you think the maglev can be a new icon of Japan? What will the maglev represent for Japan and to the world?

The Chuo Shinkansen will be key to allow the Japanese economy continue to thrive in case of a natural disaster in the areas where the Tokaido Shinkansen currently runs. Plus, it will connect Tokyo and Osaka in just 67 minutes, creating a huge metropolitan area with very short periods of travel time within its different urban centers. This will spurt new economic activities. The government is even talking about the possibility to transfer some of the function of the capital in Tokyo to other parts of Japan. If this becomes possible, the function of the capital can be distributed to different areas, enhancing the Japanese resilience to disasters when decentralizing the different governmental offices. Now there are still several plans to connect Tokyo and Osaka. They will be replaced by the maglev, meaning that the airports will have new available slots for other destinations. This is another major feature.

Regarding the world, it is true that, compared to the Shinkansen, the maglev construction cost is high: it is necessary to run it through highly dense populated areas to make it profitable and justify the construction. Of course, the Tokyo-Osaka course area carries the largest number of passengers in the world. The other corridor where this would be profitable is between Washington and New York, the northeast corridor. Right now, their roads are congested as well as airlines. If these two cities were able to be connected in an hour with the maglev, then the northeast corridor will be made more convenient. In other words, we can solve problems such as the congestion, the CO2 emission and make more slots available at the airports that can be used for other destinations. I think that Washington-New York, aside from Tokyo-Osaka is the only place that the maglev will fulfill its function right now.

During the interview we had with JR East, they explained us their preparation to bid for the California High-speed rail project by forming the Japan-California HSR Consortium which comprises of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Hitachi Ltd, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nippon Sharyo Ltd and Sumitomo Corporation. What has been your approach to enter the US tender market? What have been and are the main challenges you are facing there? How does JR Central differentiate itself from competition, not only JR East, but other international rail companies, when acceding the promising US rail market?

In the United States we are promoting two projects in which we have strong interest: one is the Dallas-Houston connection of approximately 385km, the other is the northeast corridor maglev. When it comes to the maglev, I think that the private sector cannot afford to make an investment in the assumed first operating line between Washington and Baltimore, which is a 40-mile distance. This is why a government-to-government project is being discussed. Recently, Prime Minister Abe met president Obama and made a proposal: the technology will be offered from us free of charge. We want Washington-Baltimore section to be connected first, and then the maglev will be extended further towards other parts. This was posed to president Obama, and meanwhile we are working with Tom Daschle and other influential figures as they are helping us regarding promotional activities to have the northeast corridor approved and with public budget.

The other project we are involved with is in Texas. It has progressed further than the northeast corridor. There is a private corporation called TCP (Texas Central Partners) who has already secured funding of over $100 million. The project is already in the development phase. Last May, we established our own 100% subsidiary in Dallas for giving technical assistance to TCP. We have sent 15 consultants from JR Central to work over there. JR Central supports this project with full effort on a technical level. In the meantime, the challenge is to secure around $12 billion of funding estimated by TCP by March 2018. If they can secure this much funding by that time, our high-speed railway system between Dallas and Houston will become a reality.

Regarding challenges for business overseas, first of all, there are two different types of high-speed railway. One is the European type, which was introduced early on and as a result we see that high-speed trains are running on the same tracks as the other conventional trains. The European type of high-speed railway uses very rigid and heavy end locomotives for crashworthiness so it is lower energy-efficient. Meanwhile, there is a Japanese type of Shinkansen where we have dedicated tracks, only for high-speed railway. Plus, we have the automatic train control (ATC) system which can realize “Crash Avoidance”. We need to get the public much more informed about “Crash Avoidance” and its benefit around the world. This is why the International High-Speed Rail Association (IHRA) was established to promote the Japanese type Shinkansen. IHRA is holding an international forum in this November in Kyoto.

Another of our challenges is that, although people who are involved with high-speed railway project planned overseas are very impressed with the Shinkansen, they say its system cost is very expensive. But the question is, are you going to choose safety or costs? Also, if you think about the life-cycle cost, maybe the initial cost is high, but the maintenance cost required during the lifetime of the Shinkansen is lower than the cost our competitors require.


I would like to give you the opportunity to address to the US audience and explain, in a nutshell, what can you bring to Americans that others cannot bring? How do you want JR Central to be seen in the US?

I would like to summarize the strengths of the Japanese Shinkansen: we have a dedicated track, we have the ATC safety system, we can ensure the highest punctuality in the world plus we have much higher energy efficiency. Add to all that our beautiful track record of 50 years without any fatalities or injuries.

Finally, by realizing the northeast corridor with our maglev, this will benefit both the United States and Japan. We worked very hard on this, and we hope that Americans would appreciate the advantages of having it. With the Texas project, we already have our people there working in coordination with TCP.

We are very proud and confident about our Shinkansen, which is unbeatable by the other high-speed railways such as Chinese or French ones.


Tsuge-san, you joined the Japan National Railways in 1977. Two years ago, you took up the position of JR Central President. What are your main ambitions regarding JR Central innovation and globalization efforts? In this regard, if we come back in ten years from now, where would you like JR Central to be?

In 10 years, I would like to have the maglev connecting Shinagawa and Nagoya with the Chuo Shinkansen. Meanwhile we want the current Shinkansen to be further enhanced. In 10 years time we will be able to see these two trains contributing to the backbone of the Japanese economy even more.

[In 10 years’ time] I would also like to see both the Washington-New York maglev and the Texas Shinkansen operating. At least, in the case of Texas, the target is to start operations by 2022. I hope these two new trains will lead towards stronger bond connections between the United States and Japan.

I would also try to increase our revenue coming from non-railway service business. For example, in Nagoya, around the station, we have a number of buildings that we own, from which we want to increase profit.

Safety is another of my main targets. I want to continue to see that there are no fatalities whatsoever. Lastly, we want to be sure that our workers are highly motivated in their workplace. We want their families to be happy too. These are my main ambitions as JR Central President.