Japan's New Bullet Train Faces Environmental Concerns

Will the clash between a corporate giant and local authorities jeopardize the project or the environment?
Utku Kucukduner

Once it becomes operational, Japan's Maglev Chuo Shinkansen will be the world's fastest bullet train. The test run conducted in 2015 has already set a world record at 374 mph (603 kph).


The train line is planned to link three colossal cities of Japan; Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. It is expected to be partially operational in 2027, although there may be some obstacles ahead that'll require rescheduling.

Japan's New Bullet Train Faces Environmental Concerns
The three mega-cities, Source: Google Maps

What makes Maglev Chuo Shinkansen special again?

Maglev tech enables such high speeds utilizing superconductor magnets. The train levitates about 3.9 inches (10 cm) above ground while traveling. The magnets push the train forward. 

The new system will cut down the traveling time between Tokyo and Aichi by 50 minutes, making the trip between the stations merely 40 minutes.

The route between Tokyo and Aichi was planned out to be as straight as possible. It's planned to pass through seven prefectures Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Shizuoka, Nagano, Gifu, and Aichi.

The project budget as of now is 85 billion USD, and as it is considered a national project, 1/3rd of this sum is funded by the government with a low-interest loan.

Uchida Toshihiro, an economist expert on Tokai central region discusses the economic benefits of Maglev with NHK World-Japan "A private think tank estimates the economic effects will be worth 105 billion USD nationwide over the first 50 years, on the premise that operations get underway in 2027." And adds, "In the Tokai region alone, about 19 billion USD worth of business would be generated."

But it's not all fun and games with the whole process. Shizuoka Prefecture has denied permission for a 5.5 mile (9 km) tunnel that intersects their area of jurisdiction.

Concerns over environmental well-being

There's a river called Oigawa stemming from the Southern Alps. A feasibility study deduced that building a tunnel in the planned area will cause groundwater feeding the river to seep into the tunnel, reducing the flow rate of the stream. Shizuoka authorities are concerned about this issue.

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Shizuoka Governor, Kawakatsu Heita expressed concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the project, saying "It is totally because of the water issues. Water is of the utmost importance to us and if they construct a train tunnel through the Southern Alps, they say two tons per second will be lost. More than 600,000 people depend on this water. It is the lifeblood of the prefecture."

Central Japan Railway spokespeople object though. They assured the prefecture that they'll utilize waterways and pumps inside the tunnel to redirect the groundwater to preserve the river.

Still, Kawakatsu remains unconvinced, pointing out that the company hasn't presented veritable scientific evidence. He says "We can't accept this," and adds, "Why did they choose this route when there were so many proposed? This shortest option is only for speed. They should change the route because going five minutes around wouldn't matter much."

The transportation ministry of Japan held an expert panel to open the topic into discussion. In the first meeting which took place in April, Kaneko Shin, the President of Central Japan Railway bashed Shizuoka, stating that it's unfair that their construction plans are held hostage to such high demands.

Shizuoka protested starkly, stating that the company disregards both the prefecture residents' feelings and ignore the efforts to preserve the environment.

What's on the table?

The company states that if the situation does not resolve, they'll not be able to open the tracks for business in 2027. And as this is a mega-scale project economist Uchida also notes:  "If construction work is delayed due to the difficulty of opening the line in 2027, construction costs are likely to increase. It could also affect the redevelopment of areas along the line, including intermediate stations. For example, redevelopment projects planned for around Shinagawa and Nagoya stations may also be delayed."

Long term projects of this scale always carry a certain amount of risk. Let's hope that both the investors, the residents dependent on the river, and the environment get a fair deal out of this hassle.

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