In the wake of the devastating Russian invasion, Ukraine is fervently seeking assistance to rebuild its shattered nation. Among the avenues for recovery lies an intriguing opportunity – the adoption of Japan’s renowned Shinkansen system. This endeavor not only promises to revamp Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure but also offers Japan a platform to showcase its high-speed railway technology to the world.
A Plea Heard at the G7 Summit
The seeds of this partnership were sown when Ukrainian ambassador Sergiy Korsunsky made a compelling request following the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima. He implored for Japan’s Shinkansen to be included as part of Ukraine’s rebuilding support. This plea resonated with Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, who oversees infrastructure. During his visit to Japan in mid-June to discuss Ukraine’s economic reconstruction, Kubrakov expressed a keen interest in the prospect of introducing bullet trains to Ukraine’s transit landscape.
However, this ambitious project faces substantial hurdles that must be surmounted before it can become a reality.
The Challenge of Rail Width
Central to this endeavor is the matter of rail width. Ukraine currently employs the standard Russian gauge of 1,520 millimeters, owing to its historical ties with the former Soviet Union. Regrettably, this uniformity has inadvertently facilitated Moscow’s ability to transport personnel and supplies efficiently during their invasion efforts. In stark contrast, Western European countries, including Poland, operate on a 1,435-millimeter rail gauge – the same as Japan’s Shinkansen.
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The disparity in rail standards necessitates cumbersome train and cargo transshipment when traveling between Ukraine and its Western neighbors. Last year, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal announced a pivotal decision to align the country’s rail width with European criteria. This strategic move aims to improve accessibility to Western states, while concurrently diminishing Moscow’s influence. It also positions Japan’s Shinkansen, operating seamlessly on 1,435-mm tracks, as the ideal solution for this transformative project.
Japan’s Strategic Export Drive
For Japan, the export of its Shinkansen technology holds considerable strategic significance. As the domestic market contracts and the birthrate dwindles, Japan is vigorously expanding its infrastructure facilities exports. At the forefront of this effort is the Shinkansen, celebrated for its impeccable safety record spanning over 50 years – an enviable milestone marked by zero fatal accidents due to derailments or collisions.
Japan’s successful export track record includes the establishment of a high-speed transit network in Taiwan in 2007, utilizing Japanese bullet train technology. Moreover, Japan is actively exploring opportunities to share its Shinkansen technology with the United States, envisioning a high-speed rail connection between Dallas and Houston, Texas. Similar initiatives are underway in Thailand and Vietnam, further illustrating Japan’s commitment to exporting its technological prowess.
Facing Global Competition
Yet, Japan’s Shinkansen export ambitions face mounting competition from other nations. Notably, China secured the contract to build a rapid rail network for the Jakarta-Bandung route in Indonesia, leaving Japan behind in the bid. The governments of Malaysia and Singapore have also shelved plans to construct a Shinkansen line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, opting for alternative solutions.
Local complexities and uncertainties can also present formidable challenges to the smooth launch of a bullet train project. The planned Shinkansen line between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in India, agreed upon in 2015, is a glaring example. Delays in land acquisition and other obstructions have pushed the expected completion date from 2023 to 2028, with costs soaring well beyond initial estimates.
Generous Support and Profitability Concerns
To support these ventures, the Japanese government extends loans with a 0.1 percent annual interest rate over 50 years to cover construction costs. This exceptional financial assistance is part of the state’s comprehensive support package designed to mitigate the substantial risks inherent in large-scale construction projects. Nevertheless, some still question whether the Shinkansen service can turn a profit as a private business venture.
In the context of Ukraine’s prolonged war, even conducting an on-site survey – a necessary step before laying new rail tracks – remains a distant aspiration for the near future. The United Nations Development Program has identified priorities such as mine clearance, debris removal, and energy supply restoration as immediate reconstruction needs. As a Japanese government insider aptly noted, the revival of utilities, including power, water, and heating, within one to two years is paramount. Reconstruction projects like the introduction of the Shinkansen must be evaluated within a 10-year strategic framework.
In conclusion, Ukraine’s aspiration to harness Japan’s Shinkansen technology as a catalyst for recovery is a testament to the transformative potential of high-speed rail systems. This endeavor not only promises to modernize Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure but also underscores Japan’s commitment to exporting its technological prowess to the world. However, it is essential to navigate the intricate challenges of rail width standardization, international competition, and local complexities diligently. The success of this ambitious undertaking could well define a new chapter in Ukraine’s resurgence and Japan’s global outreach efforts.