For Central Japan Railway Co., Superconductivity Is Name of Game

Continued from Part One.

The new train, designed by Central Japan Railway Co., will initially link central Tokyo with Nagoya station, cutting current bullet train journey times by more than half, from 90 to 40 minutes by traveling at over 300 mph.

The final train will consist of 16 carriages carrying up to 1,000 passengers at a time, with plans under way to extend the line to Osaka by 2045 at a cost of Y8.44 trillion ($100 billion), according to another article.

Part of the reason for the astronomic price is the huge infrastructure cost associated with the technology. The trains are currently exploiting superconductivity to generate high currents and hence create extremely strong magnetic fields.

The superconducting magnets and coils employing niobium-titanium alloys operate at -269 degrees Celsius, requiring helium refrigeration units; which, when added to the already huge magnets and shielding, add up to produce carriage weights of 100 tons.

Shielding is required to protect passengers from the strong magnetic fields that would otherwise interfere with watches, cell phones and pacemakers. If the carriages are eye-wateringly expensive, the tracks are even worse – the main expense is the elevated concrete guide-way with embedded aluminum loops and magnets.

The cost of liquid helium used as a coolant to create superconductivity is also very high, but if superconductors can be improved to achieve superconductors operating at temperatures high enough for liquid nitrogen, then the costs will be cut by a factor of 100. Research in achieving superconductivity at higher temperatures is ongoing and offers some hope that costs could be reduced in years to come.

Construction is underway to extend the current test track of 18.4 kilometers (11 miles) to 42.8 kilometers (26 miles), connecting Kofu and Tolyo’s central station, Sagamihara, cutting the journey time to 15 minutes by 2020. By then it is hoped that people will be willing to pay for the thrill of riding at 500 kph on the train.

Then the idea is to use money generated from thrill rides and each new section to pay for construction of subsequent sections. Skeptics suggest this approach is unlikely to work and either corporate bonds or government-backed loan guarantees will be required.

Still, you can’t write the Japanese off when it comes to audacious infrastructure projects: they have a history of taking on these long-term investments successfully. They may yet prove us wrong and deliver an on-time project to match that of their high-speed trains.

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