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Faster Than a Speeding Bullet : High-Speed Trains are Japan's Pride, Subject of Debate


TOKYO — Toru Fukushima still recalls the pride he felt when, as a high school student during the golden autumn of 1964, Tokyo was host to the Olympics and the soon-to-be-famous bullet train made its first high-speed runs.

"The bullet train and the Olympic Games together were symbols of Japan's economic growth," said Fukushima, now a planning official with Central Japan Railway Co. "I sent my friends New Year's cards with pictures of the bullet train. And I received many cards from my friends with its design. It represented the hopes of the Japanese people."

While the bullet train is no longer the world's fastest--that honor now belongs to the French Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV)--Japan's love for speed on rails is still intense.

The nation is making a multibillion-dollar gamble on developing ever faster and ever more technically advanced trains that would improve service at home and, it is hoped, generate business abroad. Work is moving forward both on speeding up conventional bullet trains and on building futuristic levitation trains that will float above the tracks via electromagnetic power.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 12, 1994 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 4 Financial Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Bullet train photos--The photograph of Japan's bullet train on the cover of the Sunday Business section should have been credited to IMPACT VISUALS/Maggie Murray, and the photo of the "maglev" train should have been credited to SYGMA/T. Matsumoto.

Yet the advanced, in-service model of the bullet train, Nozomi , has been engulfed in controversy since it was launched two years ago. Some critics say the risks in Japan's aggressive development of faster trains--in terms of both finances and safety--outweigh the potential benefits.

Despite questions about the wisdom of this massive investment, it is clearly producing technical progress. And, with the Clinton Administration showing interest in high-speed rail, Japanese rail technology soon may be finding its way to the United States.

Magnetic levitation (or "maglev") train technology is one area the United States and Japan cited as offering potential for research collaboration in a broad agreement signed in February by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Japan's Ministry of Transportation.

"My understanding is that the U.S. government is most interested in superconductivity" for use in maglev trains, said Norio Mitsuya, director of international economic affairs at the Ministry of Transportation. "Maybe the Japanese government can help."

Japan also "certainly will be ready" to cooperate in the upgrading of Amtrak's Washington-New York-Boston (Northeast corridor) service, if the United States requests such participation, Mitsuya said.

Advanced Japanese rail technology also may figure in U.S. efforts to find commercial ventures for military contractors as procurement budgets shrink. For example, Grumman Corp.--which agreed last week to be acquired by Los Angeles-based Northrop Corp.--has conferred with a Japanese firm about building a relatively simple maglev train for moderate-speed service in U.S. cities.

Potential markets for advanced train technology also beckon in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and China. The main international competition so far has pitted the bullet train against France's TGV and Germany's Intercity Express (ICE). South Korea has chosen the TGV over the bullet train for a planned Seoul-Pusan route.

Japanese engineers did feasibility studies in the United States about a decade ago, during an earlier wave of U.S. interest in high-speed trains. They looked at prospects for a Los Angeles-San Diego line and at projects in Florida and in the Chicago area.

Their conclusions--based partly on their own experiences getting around the United States--were not encouraging.

"Except for the Northeast corridor, high-speed rail projects in the United States are not (commercially) feasible, we think," said Fukushima, whose company operates the bullet train service between Tokyo and Osaka. "Americans like to travel by airplane and rental cars. Many engineers who visited the United States know the convenience of this combination."

Japanese interest in finding overseas customers for rail technology is based not only on the money to be made, but also very much on national prestige, Fukushima said.

"We have pride that the initial high-speed train was inaugurated in Japan," he said. "We have pride that our system encouraged European railways that high-speed rail would be possible. Thirty years ago, other countries were very pessimistic about the future of rail. We have pride in the "

While skeptics say prestige has played too big a role in the never-ending quest for greater speed, Japan is aggressively pushing forward on four major technical fronts:

* The Nozomi, which runs at speeds up to 168 m.p.h., was launched in 1992. Service has not been trouble-free, however, and technicians are striving to resolve a variety of problems, many of them related to loose or weak bolts. Critics say that government-owned Central Japan Railway, creator of the Nozomi, rushed the light-weight, aluminum-body train into service without sufficient testing--a charge the company denies.

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