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Friday, May 14, 2010

3 (Fanciful) Reasons Why the U.S. Should Invest in Japanese Trains

One rather curious legacy of living in the UK for so long is my enduring fascination with trainspotting--the  effort to "spot" all of a certain type of rolling stock, whether a particular kind of locomotive or carriage, or all of the rolling stock of a particular rail company. (I lived in Britain before the 1996 film--which in fact had little to do with trainspotting, except perhaps as a metaphor for heroin addiction.)

I moved from Britain to Japan, where I was gobsmacked by modern rail technology--to the point of dabbling in a bit of trainspotting myself.

As my closetful of colorful coats will attest, I'm no sad anorak. But I would morph into a two-year-old boy whenever I spotted a bullet train, or shinkansen, whizzing by at speeds of upwards of 150 miles per hour. I also loved seeing them glide into the station: for such super high-tech vehicles, they have the cutest noses!

And now, perhaps, I have the prospect of continuing my dalliance with Japanese trains in this part of the world. I learned this week that Japan is trying to export its high-speed rail technology to the United States. Japanese high-speed trains in America: who thought we'd see the day? And I wonder which model? The N700 shinkansen series has a tilting capability enabling it to run at a top speed of about 205 miles an hour, and JR Central is now testing a MLX01 maglev bullet train, which in 2003 clocked the world’s fastest trial run of 361 miles an hour. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Japan this week test-riding it!

Besides the obvious--reducing traffic congestion and pollution--I can perceive three main benefits:

1) Our country would quickly become a trainspotter's delight. The new maglev (maglev is short for “magnetic levitation") bullet train uses powerful magnets that allow the train to float just above the track. It starts off on wheels, then gravitates upward after reaching high speeds. A train with no wheels--that's enough to turn most of us into train enthusiasts if not hard-core spotters.

2) Our train stations as well might consider becoming more like Japan's--for instance, by providing boxed lunches for travelers featuring local food specialties (what the Japanese call ekiben). I can just see it now: crabcake ekiben in Baltimore, cheesesteak ekiben in Phillie, deep-dish pizza ekiben in Chicago, and lobster ekiben in Boston…

3) And let's not discount the impact these high-speed trains would have on the popular imagination. Kyotaro Nishimura, considered the father of the Japanese travel mystery, is renowned for a series of train-related stories in which a detective named Totsukawa often breaks suspects' alibis by carefully studying the train schedule. At the very least, Hollywood might be stimulated to create a series of adventure films centered on high-tech locomotives--called Close Encounters on the Maglev Train, or some such.

Vietnam is in--they're investing in shinkansen technology to develop a high-speed rail link that will link the southern part of the country to the capital city, Hanoi, in the north.

So what about us? According to LaHood: “We’re right at the start of an opportunity for America to be connected with high-speed, intercity rail," beginning with the building of a high-speed rail connecting Orlando and Tampa (scheduled to be up and running in 2015). 

Question: Does anyone out there agree with me that instead of the Central Japan Railway Co peddling their technology to us, we should have begged them for it long ago? (Never mind what's on offer in France or Spain.)

3 comments:

susumu said...

Not so fast. Two Japanese ministers visited Hanoi during Golden Week peddling the shinkansen. The Japanese are behind (selling trains and nuclear power plants) and there's no guarantee they will succeed. As to maglev, they've been working on it for years and will be for years more before they have stuff to sell. Agree some ekiben are fun (Yokohama Kiyoken shumai is my favorite) but you can get them all at depachika (dept store basement food alleys).

cz said...

Worth thinking about who's likely to be (or has been) standing in the way of high-speed rails in the US... Auto industry? Airlines? Amtrak? Republicans?

Is this doomed to remain a pipe dream for the next 50 years?

ML Awanohara said...

Well, Warren Buffett is investing heavily in trains--he bought the nation's second-biggest railroad last November--so surely that's a good sign? Some said it was a sign of senility (he is 79), pointing out that railroads are 19th-century technology, and they've suffered big drops in shipping and revenue in the recession. But Buffett argues that railroads represent the future, and he expects his investment to pay off throughout the 21st century.

Buffet is of course thinking of freight trains, not my beloved passenger trains. He thinks that railroads are the best positioned to haul the raw material and finished goods for the U.S. economy once it starts growing again. Unlike trucks, trains don't have to compete on congested highways, and they don't have to depend on strapped governments to maintain infrastructure.

Perhaps the high-speed-rail movement can piggyback off Buffett's claims? We Americans love to travel, but the last thing this country needs is more cars on the roads!

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