TOKYO—When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the U.S. this week, he will act as salesman-in-chief by marketing Japan’s high-speed rail system.
With the support of the government, Japanese companies are vying for chances to join three fast-train projects under consideration in the U.S. The three would link Los Angeles and San Francisco; Dallas and Houston; and New York and Washington with high-speed systems.
Exporting Japan’s bullet-train system, known as the Shinkansen, is an important element of Mr. Abe’s strategy to revive his nation’s economy. Winning contracts in the U.S. would help bolster Japan’s bid to expand business in other markets, particularly in Asia’s developing nations, and compete with rivals from China and Europe.
When he visits California as part of a weeklong tour that began Sunday, Mr. Abe is expected to deliver a speech seeking to persuade the state’s leadership of the advantages of the Japanese system, including its strong safety record, reliability and the availability of inexpensive financing, Japanese officials say.
The state broke ground in January on a high-speed link between Los Angeles and San Francisco—a signature project of Gov. Jerry Brown, with an estimated cost of $68 billion. But it has yet to choose a train supplier. At 559 kilometers, the distance between the two cities is similar to that of the popular Tokyo-Osaka route in Japan. There, the bullet train runs every five to 10 minutes. The trip takes 2 ½ hours.
Mr. Abe also is expected to highlight the latest achievement of the magnetic levitation bullet train being developed by Central Japan Railway Co. The maglev train reached a record speed of 603 kilometers an hour) during a test run in Japan last Tuesday.
In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen in October, Mr. Abe said he had proposed to President Barack Obama to roll out the maglev train in the northeastern U.S. as a symbol of bilateral cooperation. “If that happens, you could travel from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and to New York within less than an hour. What’s more, there would be very few delays,” Mr. Abe said, giving a boost to supporters of a high-speed rail proposal for the Northeast corridor.
The fastest train service in the Northeast—Amtrak’s Acela line—takes 2 hours 45 minutes to travel from Washington to New York. Amtrak’s on-time perform was 69% in the past year, compared with close to 100% for the Shinkansen. But high-speed rail projects in the U.S. have long been held back by political gridlock and worries about financing. In Texas, proponents of the Dallas-Houston train are pushing ahead with the project, but have met resistance from residents of rural communities along the route, who say it will be too disruptive.
Success in the American market would help galvanize Japan’s campaign for rail projects in other markets and allow it to play catch-up with major European companies like Alstom SA, Siemens AG and Bombardier Inc. Also on the rise state-owned China CNR Corp. and CSR Corp.
Japan has been conducting feasibility studies for projects in India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, but none has committed to giving it business.
China, meanwhile, is rapidly developing its own high-speed train-manufacturing industry. Chinese companies are competing with their Japanese rivals in the same markets, often offering much lower prices, Japanese officials say. Last year, after years of negotiating with a Japanese consortium, officials in Thailand decided to award a high-speed rail contract to China.
Asserting the nation’s presence in infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia is important for Tokyo, as officials become wary of Beijing’s growing geopolitical influence in the region.
The company that leads Japan’s bids in California is Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., a Kobe-based maker of ships, aircraft, trains and motorcycles.
In the U.S., Kawasaki is the second-largest train supplier after Bombardier, with a market share of about 20%, according to company data. It has a manufacturing hub in Nebraska, from which it delivers to other U.S. locations such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, for final assembly. “We have an experience of more than 30 years working with local suppliers to produce locally in the U.S. and being on time in delivery,” said company spokesman Yoshiyuki Kinugasa.
Mr. Abe has introduced a top-down style in infrastructure exports as part of his “Abenomics” policy package to invigorate Japan’s economy. He personally leads fast-paced negotiations with other countries, instead of leaving them to Japanese companies, where decision making is often slow, says Shinichi Matsumoto, president of Tokyo-based technology consultant firm O2 Inc. Mr. Matsumoto has advised train makers on their business strategies.
Despite the long history and impeccable safety record of its bullet train system, Japan has won few multibillion-dollar deals overseas, in part because local suppliers dominate in the world’s biggest railway markets of Europe and China. Among Japan’s overseas successes was a Taiwanese project involving Kawasaki signed in 2000, a U.K. Intercity express program with Hitachi Ltd. in 2012, and Qatar’s first subway system with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. this year.
The Japanese consortium bidding for the California project hopes that Tokyo will help finance the new project with a cheap loan from the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
Supporting Kawasaki’s bid in California is East Japan Railway Co., Japan’s largest operator that runs a massive railway system crisscrossing the Tokyo metropolitan area, as well as long-distance bullet trains.
“We have a track record of transporting a huge volume of passenger traffic with very few delays or accidents,” says Toru Takahashi, an international division chief of JR East. “Because the trains operate so accurately, travel can be made very efficiently.