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Floating Faster and Farther

Japanese officials have given the green light for the construction of a maglev train that will be one of the fastest on the planet. They're putting the wheels in motion for a rail line that will carry passengers between Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes, cutting travel time in half. And they think it will help drive Japan's economy. NHK WORLD's Takeo Baba reports.

A magnetically levitated train powers along a test line in central Japan.
Top speed is 500 kilometers per hour -- twice as fast as the conventional Shinkansen bullet train.

A maglev train does not run on a track. Instead, it floats above a guide rail, thrust forward by the power of magnets.

The key mechanism is superconductivity -- a permanent flow of electricity that generates a very large magnetic field. That is achieved by using liquid helium to cool the superconductive material to less than minus 260 degrees. The force is powerful enough to suspend heavy train cars in the air -- and propel them forward, at great speed.

Researchers in Japan began working on the technology more than 50 years ago.

Central Japan Railway Company, or JR Tokai, will operate the new service. It plans to finish the first leg by 2027, and then extend the line to Osaka by 2045. The maglev will eventually link Japan's 3 biggest cities -- offering new economic opportunities.

"The maglev will be our second artery, alongside the conventional bullet train line. It is a national project which makes it our cornerstone."
Kouei Tsuge / President, Central Japan Railway Company

Local governments and business groups in and around Nagoya are already using the project to help attract foreign investors.

These executives are from Germany. Their companies supply state-of-the-art materials for automobile and aircraft makers.

"There's quite a lot of possibility to invest in this greater Nagoya region, because there are lots of interesting companies."
Martin Windpassinger / PARAT Beteilligungs GmbH

But some experts have concerns about the maglev service. They fear only Tokyo will swallow up the economic benefits.

"If Nagoya is linked to Tokyo by a train journey of only 40 minutes, most businessmen from Tokyo will probably come here on day trips. We need to build the kind of infrastructure that will effectively attract foreign firms so that the Nagoya region will have an increasing number of long-term residents."
Toshihiro Uchida / Economist, Institute of Economics, Chukyo University

The expected economic effect goes beyond the domestic market. The Japanese government is aiming to export maglev technology to the United States and other countries. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a pitch when he visited the New York Stock Exchange.

Earlier this year, US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy took a demonstration ride.

After decades of development, the maglev has finally arrived. The journey from dream to reality could eventually take it far beyond Japan.

To get more on the maglev, we turn now to Takeo Baba at NHK's Nagoya Bureau.

Takeo, it now takes about 90 minutes to get from Tokyo to Nagoya -- that's on the fastest Shinkansen bullet train. But, with the maglev train, it will take only 40 minutes. It's very quick, isn't it?

It is, indeed. You've got time to have a coffee, then you'll be in Nagoya.

But there won't be much of a view from your window. Almost 90 percent of the route will be underground or in tunnels.

So tell me about the service?

At the initial stage, operators expect to run 5 maglev trains every hour.
The fare from Tokyo to Nagoya will be about 7 dollars more than the Shinkansen -- which is about 110 dollars one way.

So you pay a little bit more for the reduced travel time. Could you tell us about the construction plans?

The operator, JR Tokai, will start by holding meetings in coming weeks to explain its plans to residents along the route. It will also begin buying land. Construction could get underway as early as the beginning of next year.

The train service won't be operating for another 13 years. That feels like a long time off.

It does, but on the other hand, there is a lot of work to do. For example, regional communities hope to attract foreign investors. To do that, they need to upgrade facilities and services. The policies over the next 13 years are important not just for the maglev project, but also for Japan's economy and society.

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