On Monday, the Antiplanner rode a high-speed train from Tokyo to Nagano, probably the most expensive high-speed rail route in the world. According to one source, it cost more than half a billion dollars per mile in 1997 dollars, no doubt because much of the route is in tunnels. The train I was on was practically empty, and I understand that is the usual condition for that route except in high tourist season.
The Nagano high-speed rail route is a perfect example of why the U.S. shouldn’t build high-speed rail. Even if the Boston-to-Washington or California routes made sense (which they don’t), once a government starts on a project like this it can’t stop until all the most powerful politicians have one in their states and districts. The Nagano and other Japanese high-speed rail routes were built not because they make financial or transportation sense but because of politics.
My friend Wendell Cox says that, if you really want to get to know a region (or a country), you have to rent a car because relying on public transportation alone will give you a skewed view of the country. I am sure he is correct, yet I personally hate driving and love trains, so in both Korea and Japan I bought a rail pass. Here in Japan, my goal is to ride as many trains as possible in the few days I am here. So far I’ve been riding 6 or 7 trains a day.
The Tokyo-to-Osaka Shinkansen are truly impressive. I boarded one in Nagoya, roughly the midway point. The platform had two tracks going in each direction, and when one train pulled out another one arrived just 5 or 6 minutes later. Ten or more trains per hour in each direction must be an interesting dispatching problem, but they handle it well. Each train has a capacity of about 1,300 passengers, so the line can handle roughly 13,000 people per hour in each direction. That’s not as much as a freeway lane full of buses, but is still a respectable number. Though the trains aren’t full, they are full enough for this route to cover both its capital and operating costs.
Of course, the United States doesn’t have any routes with the populations found in the Tokyo-to-Osaka corridor, and Japan only has one, which is why nearly all other Japanese high-speed rail lines fail to cover their capital costs.
The other thing noticeable about Japan, especially after visiting Korea: very few high-rise residential towers. Lots of Japanese in Tokyo live in mid-rise mixed-use areas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of Japanese live in single-family homes. At least, that seems to be true outside of Tokyo, and I saw lots of single-family homes in Tokyo as well. The mushrooming of high rises in Korea must have something to do with the fact that the nation was under a military dictatorship for about three decades, the same decades that many soviet nations were building high-rises for their residents. It must have seemed the thing to do.