Last week, Japan’s high-speed train industry organised a celebration of the Shinkansen’s 50th birthday at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. The mood of the gathering was festive but top Japanese railway executives in attendance had a more pressing agenda in mind.
Transportation officials from India, the UK, the US, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia had flown in for the occasion. All six countries have plans for new high-speed rail lines and every one of them was exploring the possibility of investing in Shinkansen technology.
This was Japan’s chance to make the hard sell to its visitors; sadly that’s not what happened. There were speeches and roundtable discussions and PowerPoint presentations with slides that were so heavy on text and graphs that the message got muddled.
The Japanese consortium hosting the conference, the International High-speed Rail Association (IHRA), didn’t do itself any favours by talking about competing standards, a phrase reminiscent of consumer technology battles of the past (think VHS versus Betamax and HD DVD versus Blu-ray).
Once again, Japan’s attempt to sell itself to the rest of the world fell short. More than 20 countries are now looking to build high-speed rail lines using trains travelling at 250km/h or faster. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Japan, one of the pioneers in high-speed rail travel, were not a top contender for many of these contracts.
The argument for using Shinkansen technology is straightforward: there hasn’t been a single injury or death on a bullet train since they started running half a century ago. That’s impressive when you consider how many people have travelled by bullet train: more than 5.6 billion passengers on the Tokyo-Osaka line and billions more nationwide. Japan has also shown how a high-speed rail line along a major commercial corridor can be a catalyst for economic growth.
Replicating Japan’s Shinkansen doesn’t come cheap. Bullet trains run on dedicated tracks, which eliminates the danger of a collision with a slower commuter or freight train or a truck at a rail crossing. It also means trains can run frequently – just a few minutes apart – on precise timetables and train carriages can be made lighter and more energy efficient.
So far the only country to adopt Shinkansen technology is Taiwan; cost is the main reason others haven’t signed on. The alternative, of course, is to buy trains from manufacturers in Germany, France, Spain or China that run on an existing rail network.
For Japan there’s another hurdle: culture. Aggressive marketing is not a familiar business tactic for Japanese railway companies. They tend to assume that the Shinkansen's technology and safety record speak for themselves. To these companies, an unsolicited bid is too pushy. But it’s about time Japan got pushy and stopped taking the high road.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.