Japan Offers High-Speed Rail Financing

While U.S.A. efforts to begin a true high-speed rail system remain mired in politics, Japan is eager to export its rail technology, and will even help finance systems that use it, according to reporting by Eric Pfanner in The New York Times (November 19).  In a recent visit, ex–New York Governor George Pataki inspected Japanese magnetic-levitation (or “maglev”) technology and listed to the Japanese sales pitch.  Various other American politicians also made the trip, a number are on the advisory board of The Northeast Maglev, a company in Washington that wants to build a maglev line between Washington and New York.

The existing Japanese high-speed or “bullet” rail system does not use the maglev technology, which is a more recent development that is largely seeking a market, but there are proposals for Japan to use the technology in a new line proposed to partially pass through the Japan Alps, running from Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka.  The demonstration line ridden by Gov. Pataki achieved speeds of 315 miles per hour, more than twice the fastest speed that Amtrak’s trains can currently achieve—typically, Amtrak trains run at their fastest speed only for short distances, as most of the rail network cannot support these speeds.  Maglev technology, although capable of very high speeds, has a disadvantage in that it is incompatible with existing track, so maglev trains require a totally dedicated system of their own.  Some high-speed train systems, such as in France, rely on use of conventional low-speed trackage to allow trains to serve cities off the high-speed network, without the need to change trains, and the current plan for high-speed rail in California also relies on that capability.  In order to encourage foreign countries to adopt Japanese maglev technology, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has offered to contribute “several billions of dollars” in financing, in order to establish an international showcase that would stimulate worldwide interest.  This, however may only be the proverbial drop in the bucket: the cost of the Japanese Tokyo-Osaka line is currently estimated at nearly $100 billion.

The complete article (limited access) can be visited at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/business/international/japan-pitches-americans-on-its-maglev-train.html

Amtrak Reaches for Highest Speed

All the talk is of high-speed trains, but NJ Transit commuters wonder whether they will ever benefit, as commuter trains with their many stops, long loading times, and terminal congestion delays seem to be bogged down in a 19th-Century era, often managing less than 30 miles per hour average end-to-end.  Still, it’s possible to run trains at breathtaking speeds on some of the same tracks that NJT commuters travel every day.  Monday night, September 24, Amtrak tested an out-of-the-box Acela trainset on the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and Trenton, the same tracks used by dozens of NJT trains every day.

However, Amtrak’s train was trying for a new speed record of 165 mph, according to the story in the Star-Ledger the next day (by Mike Frassinelli).  Even Amtrak’s fastest trains are limited to 135 mph on that stretch of track.  Engineers were still bent over their slide rules and calculators, trying to figure out if the 165 mph goal had actually been acheived.  Motivation for the test runs includes a project to upgrade the overhead “catenary” power-supply wires, which suffer from a design dating from the original electrification in the 1930s; the new system, to cost $450 million, will allow speeds up to 160 mph—hence the Sept. 24 tests aiming for 5 miles faster.  Simiilar tests are scheduled up and down the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure improvements on all lines are essential, and notes that bridge replacement, new trans-Hudson tunnels, and catenary upgrades on the Northeast Corridor all will be vital to ensure that the transportation system continues to meet the needs of the region.