Environmental concerns hit Japan's high-speed rail plans

Shizuoka prefecture governor cites worries that mountain region tunnel could affect river

Japan's plan to launch a magnetic levitation (maglev) train service that will more than halve the travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027 is being derailed by fierce resistance over environmental concerns.

The maglev train can reach a top speed of about 500kmh - around twice that of a shinkansen bullet train - slashing travel time between the two cities to 40 minutes from the current 90 minutes.

The plan is for the service, officially called the Linear Chuo Shinkansen, to be further extended to Osaka by 2037.

But the fate of the nine trillion yen (S$116.7 billion) project now hangs on plans to excavate a 9km tunnel through a mountain region known as the Southern Alps in Shizuoka prefecture, which is best known as the home of Mount Fuji.

Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu not only refused to give the green light for construction at a meeting last Friday with operator Central Japan Railway (JR Central), but also broadcast the session live online in a rare, if not defiant, move.

He cited concerns by environmentalists and local farmers that the plan will adversely affect the Oi River's quality and volume of water, potentially disrupting livelihoods in key parts of the agriculture industry, like in the tea and orange sectors.

While the governor said he was not entirely opposed to the project, he accused JR Central of refusing to share its environmental assessments. He stressed: "We must consider how to strike a balance between the Linear Chuo Shinkansen and the environment."

This is not the first time that environmental concerns have disrupted development plans in Japan.

Earlier this year, Hokkaido withdrew its long-held interest to build an integrated resort in the city of Tomakomai, south of Sapporo and near New Chitose Airport.

Newly-elected Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki said then that it was impossible to conduct an environment impact assessment on the nearby Lake Utonai, a wildlife sanctuary, in time to submit an official bid next year.

Meanwhile, JR Central is likely to announce a costly delay of the planned launch of the train service due to the stand-off. The Nikkei cited sources as saying that the price tag will rise by up to 200 billion yen for each year the project is delayed.

BALANCE OF INTERESTS

We must consider how to strike a balance between the Linear Chuo Shinkansen and the environment.

SHIZUOKA GOVERNOR HEITA KAWAKATSU

 
 
 

The 9km tunnel through Shizuoka is the only segment of the 286km line for which construction has not begun, and JR Central president Shin Kaneko told Mr Kawakatsu last Friday that there were "high expectations" from the national government and the other six prefectures along the line.

Shizuoka is the only prefecture where there are no planned stops for the line - which means limited economic benefit - and critics say Mr Kawakatsu could be trying to negotiate for more concessions.

But the stare-down has caused frustration in Nagoya, whose mayor Takashi Kawamura has said: "There will be nothing good economically for Nagoya if the project is delayed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2020, with the headline 'Environmental concerns hit Japan's high-speed rail plans'. Print Edition | Subscribe