» JR Tokai, offering the Shinkansen N700 trainset and associated technologies, hopes to win the right to run trains in Florida.
With President Obama heading to Tampa on Thursday, speculation about how high-speed rail grants will be distributed is aimed directly at Florida. The state hopes to capitalize on its recent decision to invest millions in a commuter rail system for the state’s central areas to attract up to $2.5 billion in federal dollars to fund the construction of an electrified fast train system planned for the Tampa-Orlando corridor. Now, a Japanese company is interested in cashing in.
If the President does hand the state a check, Florida will be the first in the nation to offer its population true high-speed rail built in a dedicated corridor. Potential constructors and operators are lining up just in time. Back in September, French national rail operator SNCF proposed major investments in Florida, California, the Midwest, and Texas, becoming the only company to respond with detailed plans for service to Congressman John Mica’s (R-FL) 2008 request for proposals. Earlier in January, Amtrak suggested that as the only current American high-speed rail operator, it had unrivaled experience to offer.
But Central Japan Railway Company‘s (JRC) decision to form an American subsidiary called U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail (USJHSR) in cooperation with a venture capital firm is the clearest sign yet that the fight for control over the Florida line will be a battle of industry titans. The interest of foreign firms in the project assuages any doubts over whether the U.S. is well-suited for high-speed operations.
Also known as JR Tokai, JRC began operations in 1987 following the privatization of Japan’s railroads and it is now the country’s largest operator of high-speed trains, or Shinkansen. JRC carries an average of 409,000 daily passengers on 323 daily trains. The company is investing tens of billions of dollars in a new maglev corridor between Tokyo and Osaka to supplement the existing Tokaïdo route between the cities. But the Japanese market is virtually saturated as there are few opportunities for passenger growth in transport — even the new trunk line will attract few new passengers.
Investing in U.S. operations, then, could be lucrative in growing the company’s revenues. The Japanese Senior Vice Transport Minister, Sumio Mabuchi, has been active in pitching Japanese technology to Washington. And as of last week, JRC replaced bankrupt Japan Airlines on the Japanese Nikkei Average, signaling that the stock market sees a future in the company.
USJHSR, run from an office just blocks from the White House, stated that it sees the Florida route as the most promising for new service in the U.S. A subsidiary, called U.S.-Japan Maglev, will market JRC’s magnetic levitation-based trains to authorities planning corridors like the one between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, though there is clearly less of an interest in that expensive technology.
In the bidding for operations and construction on Florida’s line, JRC may have some advantages over other competitors. Unlike the French SNCF, the Japanese company is offering a complete systems integration package in developing the line, including a proprietary train, the N700-I Shinkansen. SNCF has relied on Alstom to design and produce its high-speed trains — this separation would mean Florida would have to bid separately for trains and operations if it picked the French company for the latter. Unlike Amtrak, JRC is operationally profitable, meaning that problems elsewhere wouldn’t affect trains in the state; similarly, JRC’s reliability record is the gold standard, with average delays within seconds on major routes.
The N700-I trains JRC plans to offer to states like Florida are very similar to the N700 trainsets introduced in 2007 in cooperation with JR West that now make up about one-third of JRC’s high-speed fleet. The vehicles are the least energy consuming per seat-mile of all high-speed trains, likely including Alstom’s upcoming AGV, mostly because of their high capacities, which can reach up to 1,323 on a 16-car train. For the American market, JRC plans to offer trains that may include as few as six cars.
If used in the appropriate conditions, the N700 could be faster than its competitors because of its quick acceleration: it only takes the train 180 seconds to reach 170 mph on the way to a 205 mph top speed. Unlike Siemens’ Velaro or Alstom’s TGV, though, these Japanese trains cannot reach what has become the new standard: 220 mph.
JRC’s entry into the American market could result in a lobbying brawl to win the construction, operations, and train provisioning contracts once states like Florida have assembled adequate financing to implement their high-speed plans. It could also mean more jobs, as current federal law stipulates that vehicles bought with government aid be built in the U.S. Companies winning the right to supply the trains for American high-speed corridors will have to build them in the States — exactly the message an underemployed nation needs to hear right now.