Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shinkansen vs. HSR in the US - background

I've been rather busy lately, but now that I have a little free time I'd like to take the opportunity to comment on an issue that I find interesting - the recent talk I've seen about establishing high-speed rail in the US, and more often than not the reasons it won't work. You of course see people pointing to examples in Europe, Japan, even China and Korea, but people discount these examples of integrated public transportation systems that work by saying that there's no way it'd work with the sprawl of the US. There's a small nugget of truth nestled in that pile of bullshit - let me give you a little background on the conversation before going through what I've ascertained.

The Discussion

First off, the detractors - freakonomics has a post commenting on a rather negative assessment on the economics of HSR in the US by another economist over at the Times, Edward Glaeser of the economix blog. The freakonomics post references a certain Randal O'Toole critique from the CATO institute, who recently commented that NYC would be better by replacing their subway with busses, because that would make driving in the worst traffic in the country just that much more pleasant don't you know. The economix post talks about a hypothetical, stand-alone Dallas-Houston HSR line, which is pretty much doomed for failure from the beginning... at least from an economic standpoint.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the train geeks and those pushing for updates to the transportation system, such as the proposed line in California and the Midwest connector centering around Chicago, the latter of which has some good direct response to a few arguments against rail. I've also seen reference to other lines which are prospering despite all those who said it was foolish to try building them.

Background on Japanese Rail

Also just to give you a little idea of where I'm coming from, here's where Japan stands on things. The shinkansen, Japan's HSR system, has been around since 1964 and has transported more passengers (over 6 billion) in its lifetime than any other HSR system in the world. This covers 2,459 km (1,528 mi.) of track servicing most of the greater cities from Kyushu to Tohoku - once the Kyushu extensions are completed next year, you'll be able to go all the way from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to Aomori at the top of the Tohoku area, with further extension into Hokkaido up to Sapporo planned. The busiest line is the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka, which carries 151 million passengers a year, runs 10 trains per hour in either direction with 16 cars each, and goes up to 270km/h (168mph). Other trains see speeds up to 300km/h, with new trains to start service soon to further up that to 320km/h. According to numbers from 2007, the shink was more competitive than other modes of transportation for trips between 100 and 500 mi., holding 66% of the share of trips between 313 and 460 mi. (21% and 11% for air and cars respectively over the same distance). (source)

This of course only builds upon Japan's already expansive local rail systems, which permeate the entire country. While they do have their problems, the trains, when combined with busses, make owning a car a total luxury for most anyone living at least in the greater Tokyo area, including much of Chiba, Kanagawa (including Yokohama and Kawasaki) and Saitama prefectures, which in total account for 35 million people or roughly 27% of the current national population. Add in The Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolitan area with its 18.6 million population and you're up to over 40% of the country in these two major centers alone. The entire nation's population has gradually relocated as development has gradually centered around this rail system, making full use of the investments.

The Effects

There are of course going to be the obvious energy efficiency and air pollution effects. It also lowers use of oil of which is all imported in Japan due to lack of resources, and makes it run on electricity, which can be run by local resources. A good portion of Japan's power is thermally produced using fossil fuels, but it also has a lot of hydroelectric power and is one of the biggest users of nuclear power in the world.

Shinkansen and regular rail line development have totally rearranged the Japanese economy and lifestyle. Besides just connecting locations and making it easier to get around, bigger stations are bustling economic centers, with department stores, shops and just about anything you can think of. As mentioned before, you'll notice that real estate along rail lines is at a premium since everyone wants to be in an accessable location. New stations, whether local lines or shink lines, can totally revitalize local economies.

To take myself as an example, a bicycle, trains and busses get me pretty much anywhere I could possibly want to go on a daily basis, and I live about 30-minutes by train from anywhere that would be considered "downtown". I have about a 13-minute walk to the closest station, which is considered far by Tokyo standards.

The Costs

Certainly not cheap. Initial costs of the Tokaido line was 380 billion yen back in 1959 (1.055 billion USD, equivalent to 7.71 billion in modern terms). Due to it's great success, however, the loans were repaid by 1971, and it has been highly profitable ever since. The budget back in 2007 for new lines was 263.7 billion yen (~2.2B USD), shared between the national and local governments. The latest proposal is for maglev upgrades between Tokyo and Osaka at $82.5 billion with a big ol' "B" in USD, which while it would be cool, I'm still not totally convinced are necessary given Japan's already great transportation system.

Other Factors

Some factors make construction more expensive in Japan than they would be pretty much anywhere else, but 70% of this is civic engineering costs needed for all the tunnels (2/3rds of the country is mountainous), bridges and strengthening to account for the effects of earthquakes and heavy rain. Another caveat to keep in mind when applying Japanese rail figures to international debates is that there is next to no demand for freight trains in Japan due to it being surrounded by sea and having most all major centers on the coastlines. Sea freight dominates long distances, and trucks pick up the local slack. (source)

Next time I'll talk more about what I think the problems are with the arguments against HSR.

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