Finding the silver bullet for Japan’s train dilemma

Interesting article on Japanese train industry. It also helps in understanding the overall structure of train/railways.

The problem with Japanese billet trains is that they are single lines between two key stations. Such lines are closed systems as in they cannot be used by other train lines. This makes the system expensive but still is much safer than the open system alternative:

Japan has the safest, most punctual high-speed rail system in the world, so exporting that product would seem to be one of the easier challenges on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda. But 51 years after the first shinkansen, or bullet train, pulled out of Tokyo Station — marking in 1964 this nation’s postwar recovery as a modern industrial power — Japan is struggling to convince other countries to buy.

In April 2014, four Japan railway companies — East Japan Railway, Central Japan Railway, West Japan Railway and Kyushu Railway — set up the International High-Speed Railway Association (IHRA), mainly to promote the Japanese shinkansen over other high-speed railway systems in Europe and China. Japanese bullet train makers such as Kawasaki Heavy, Hitachi and other Japanese companies have joined as members of the IHRA. The Japan Railways Group, more commonly known as JR Group, consists of seven companies that took over most of the assets and operations of the government-owned Japanese National Railways on April 1, 1987: East Japan, Central Japan and West Japan are listed, while Kyushu Railway, Hokkaido Railway and Japan Freight Railway are not listed.

Industry experts say Japan may yet manage to export the technology, but only if it can overcome some major disadvantages such as its high cost and the closed-system nature of the product.

The main drawback of Japan’s bullet train technology is that its owners are insisting on selling it as an entire system, including the railways, trains and software needed to run them. This has made them too expensive and prevents buyers from combining them with other technologies or systems. Japanese bullet train makers are not willing to adapt their technology and equipment to suit local conditions, having had the luxury of focusing on their big home market for decades. This excessive focus on tailoring products and technologies for the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese market is seen in many industries, including electronics makers and mobile phone operators. Dubbed the “Galápagos syndrome” for the unique developments of the isolated flora and fauna Charles Darwin found on that unusual island, the term was originally coined to refer to Japanese 3G mobile phones, with their specialized features that are popular in Japan but shunned in overseas markets.

The closed nature of the shinkansen system is its biggest handicap, says Satoru Sone, specially appointed professor at Kougakuin University in Tokyo, an emeritus professor of Tokyo University and a leading expert on high-speed rail. “It is not realistic to sell the whole bullet train system as a package,” he says. “For example, foreign high speed railways can run on the right rail or left rail. Japan’s bullet trains can only run on the left side. No country will buy Japanese bullet trains.”

Fight of safety over low costs:

Experts predict that eventually, the global market will side with Japan in focusing on safety over cost. “Japanese bullet trains can carry over 1,000 people in one bullet train and they are safe and punctual systems that have never had an accident, but the Chinese system is very competitive in terms of cost. The countries which intend to buy high-speed rail will use criteria such as safety of operations over a long time period,” says Konomu Dobashi, a professor of modern China studies at Aichi University.

Based on that reasoning, Japan may be able to claim competitiveness in a niche market, but it is facing strong rivals in the global market. China has developed its own high-speed trains by importing and adapting features of the Japanese and European systems and is now trying to export its own bullet trains to the U.S., South America and Asia. Since the industry is considered a strategically important one by Beijing, China’s state-run railway, rolling stock manufacturers and technology companies have strong backing in the form of low-cost credit for any projects they may bid on. China has been much more aggressive in marketing its newly acquired high-speed rail expertise and equipment than Japan, says Richard Di Bona, a transportation expert based in Hong Kong. “Senior Chinese political leaders make a lot more noise in pushing Chinese technology compared with their Japanese or Korean counterparts,” he says.

Nice bit.

As India looks to build bullet/high speed train links, we should be aware of the choices available. One is hearing that Spanish high speed trains are being preferred. It is interesting how far Spanish have come in the race. Based on global railway history, Spain was really lagging behind its European peers for quite some time. They chose a gauge widely different from the rest and could not connect with the neighbouring European countries.

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