Japan's new high-speed rail plans being derailed by environmental concerns

The plan is for the service to be further extended to Osaka by 2037.
The plan is for the service to be further extended to Osaka by 2037.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - 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 can reach a top speed of about 500kph - about 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 9 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 entire 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 quality and volume of water at the Oi River, thus potentially disrupting the livelihoods of key agriculture industries like tea and oranges.

While the governor said that 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 (IR) in the city of Tomakomai, south of Sapporo and near the 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 will likely have to announce a costly delay of the planned launch of the service on 2027 due to the standoff. 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.

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 maglev line - which means there will be 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."