Global Economics

Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting for Japanese Maglev Trains to Arrive in the U.S.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe already faces formidable challenges, from reviving a moribund economy to countering China’s threat in the East China Sea. Now come reports of a task that might be even more difficult: Convincing Americans to spend big on super-fast trains that use magnetic levitation technology made in Japan.

A bipartisan group of prominent ex-politicians, including former governors George Pataki of New York and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, was in Japan over the weekend to take a ride on a Japanese maglev train. Unlike conventional trains, a maglev train uses magnetic power to propel forward, floating above the ground instead of grinding ahead on tracks. This allows maglevs to travel at otherwise-impossible speeds of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) per hour.

That’s enough to inspire anyone who has endured rail service in the Northeast Corridor. “This is amazing,” Pataki told the New York Times. “The future.”

Well, maybe—if in the future, politicians in the U.S. suddenly decide to make a break from decades of under-funding public transport and instead devote gigantic sums to high-speed rail. Here in the present, though, commuters from New Jersey to New York can’t even get the government to spend money on a new tunnel across the Hudson River. Chris Christie, governor of the Garden State and presumptive GOP savior in 2016, nixed that plan back in 2010, and he just won re-election in a landslide.

The American pols oohing and ahhing over the Japanese maglev should consider the experience of the other Asian country that has made a bet on the technology: China. Shanghai has a 30-km maglev line running from the bigger of the city’s two airports to the outskirts of downtown Pudong.  The train launched in 2002 and within a few years after its launch, it clearly was a flop.

Without question, the maglev is fast—capable of hitting 400 km per hour—but it doesn’t go to the center of town, so visitors to Shanghai still need to transfer to the subway or get in line for a cab. Indeed, Shanghai’s situation seems to have just gotten worse. The city now has a subway line that goes all the way to the airport and is much cheaper than the mag-lev’s 50-yuan ($8.21) fare, according to this report in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. The maglev is “increasingly becoming a white elephant, leaving city officials red-faced,” the paper reported.

China has long since given up on plans to build long-distance maglev trains, while a proposed maglev line in Beijing that was supposed to be slower and hence easier to build is years behind schedule. Even the official Xinhua news agency quoted a Beijing professor dismissing maglev trains as “nothing but a ‘transport toy.’”

That’s China. Japan’s maglev train technology may be much better. But the Central Japan Railway, which is building the maglev line from Tokyo to Nagoya, is spending $52 billion on the project—and won’t finish it till 2027. Spending that amount of money over that amount of time might be the future in Japan, where train travel has long enjoyed strong support. Rather than trying to sell Americans on the technology, Prime Minister Abe might be better off sticking with easier jobs such as fixing Japan’s economy or sweet-talking China’s military.

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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