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Review of investment effect needed in planning new Shinkansen projects

The Yomiuri ShimbunConstruction costs for new Shinkansen lines have been ballooning ever further. Will it be possible to ensure fiscal resources and stable earnings, and to have the projects contribute to revitalization of areas along the lines? It is necessary to reexamine the validity of the projects.

Two sections currently at issue are the Kyushu Shinkansen line between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki and the Hokuriku Shinkansen line between Kanazawa and Tsuruga. Service on both sections is aimed to begin in fiscal 2022. Total construction expenditures for these two sections are said to surpass initial projections by ¥346 billion due to sharp increases in personnel and material costs.

The construction expenses will be shouldered by the central government, municipalities along the projected lines and Japan Railways Group companies. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry plans to call for an increased fiscal allocation for the projects in the national budget for the next fiscal year. The municipalities and JR companies concerned, however, have a strong sense of caution against bearing increased financial burdens.

In connection with the current fiscal year’s budget for new Shinkansen projects, the municipalities involved have already been forced to bear a financial burden that is ¥10.1 billion bigger than the previous fiscal year.

Who will pay the bills resulting from optimistic projections, and how? Will it be possible to continue to come up with fiscal resources in the years to come? Amid severe fiscal constraints, discussions based on high cost-consciousness are called for.

In the first place, construction has yet to be launched for the section between Shin-Tosu and Takeo Onsen of the Kyushu Shinkansen linking Hakata and Nagasaki because the building method has not been decided. There are two options: One is to adopt a full-sized track like other Shinkansen lines and the other is to adopt a “mini Shinkansen” utilizing the infrastructure of an existing conventional railway line.

Overall perspective vital

There is a difference in the track gauge between Shinkansen lines and conventional railway lines. The transport ministry had planned to develop a new model of train cars that can be operated on conventional railway lines. But the plan fell through due to technological problems. This is also a factor that contributed to increasing the opaqueness of costs.

Kyushu Railway Co. assumes that passengers will be asked to use limited express trains on the conventional line over this section for the time being. This is a relay system by which passengers would switch between a Shinkansen line and a conventional railway line.

But the effect of shortening traveling hours will be limited. Even if a Shinkansen service starts provisionally after the completion of work on the section between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki, travel time between Hakata and Nagasaki will be shortened by only about 20 minutes.

If a full-sized track is adopted for the section from Shin-Tosu to Takeo Onsen, travel time to Nagasaki could be shortened significantly. But the construction cost is estimated to swell to ¥620 billion.

The ruling parties’ project team is pushing for adopting a full-sized track. But the Saga prefectural government opposes this, arguing that it will be impossible to obtain an effect of shortening the travel time that would be commensurate with the huge financial burdens it would bear. This can be said to be a natural response.

The central government must scrutinize anew the merits and demerits of a full-track Shinkansen, a so-called mini Shinkansen and a relay system and provide thorough explanations for the municipalities concerned.

The new Shinkansen program was worked out in 1973 during the period of high economic growth. Construction has been promoted at the initiative of politicians and in consideration of requests from local governments.

Highway networks and regional airports have now been built. It is imperative to have a comprehensive perspective in promoting new Shinkansen projects by taking into consideration such things as strategy on transport infrastructure and cost-effectiveness.  

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 31, 2019)

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