What it's like to hold Japan's super train golden ticket

Blink and you'll miss it: The world's fastest train

YAMANASHI, Japan — It's become one of the main attractions in this sleepy town, just southwest of Tokyo.

Several times a day, crowds gather atop an observation deck built specifically to view the world's fastest train. They climb three flights of stairs, sit and wait hours, only to catch a few seconds of the superconducting magnetic levitation train, or SCMaglev — a cutting edge "super" train that uses powerful magnets and ground coil to reach speeds topping 300 mph.

"Most of the Yamanashi Maglev is in a tunnel, so you only have a few seconds to see the outside," said Tomoaki Seki, manager of the Central Japan Railway Company, which conducts the tests. "I think you'll be amazed by the speed."

Akiko Fujita | CNBC

I visited Yamanashi, to take the SCMaglev for a test run, unaware of the demand for tickets to get on board. With the train only open to the public roughly 40 days out of the year, rail fanatics consider the ride a golden ticket of sorts. The Central Japan Railway Company has been conducting tests along the same 40 kilometer track for the past 20 years, but interest has skyrocketed, since the SCMaglev reached speeds of 375 miles per hour in 2015, setting a world record.

The limited slots are determined by a nationwide lottery. The unlucky ones, are relegated to the overlook and the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center, where every SCMaglev sighting is heralded on a public speaker system,

The preboarding process itself is an event, with music blaring, and passengers lining up for photos with a maglev cut-out.

On board, the SCMaglev looks and feels like any other high-speed rail. That is, until the train starts to reach speeds of 310 mph. The floor starts to vibrate. The cabin sways slightly.
By the time the wheels retract, lifting the train off the tracks, it feels like a plane taking off.

"There really isn't much of a view, but you can just feel how fast it's going," said Takashi Yoshiba, who brought his 4-year-old son Ryouma and his 1-year-old son Keima for the ride. "When we reached speeds of 500 kmph, you could hear the passengers cheering."

Once complete, the train will connect the 215 mile stretch between Tokyo and Nagoya in 40 minutes, slashing the current travel time by more than half. Engineers don't expect the project to be completed for another decade, but with the country's population rapidly aging, the JRC already has its eyes set on exporting the technology to the U.S.

"If they adopt this system, then the volume that the manufacturer produces will be bigger, and hopefully they can reduce the cost and that might affect the profit," Seki said.

Specifically, JRC is eyeing the Northeast Corridor — the 220 mile stretch between New York and Washington.

It's a route that currently takes nearly three hours on Amtrak's Acela Line. The SCMaglev promises to slash it to just one.

Wayne Rogers, chairman and CEO of The Northeast Maglev (TNEM), the private company promoting high speed rail, says any maglev system would require brand new infrastructure, separate from the existing tracks.

A JR Central L0 series 5-car maglev train undergoing test-running on the Yamanashi Test Track.
Saruno Hirobano | Wikimedia Commons

"In the Northeast Corridor, we have nine passenger railroads and four freight railroads all using the same 100-year-old infrastructure," Rogers said. "When we look at that, the ability to actually implement a new solution is really constrained."

That may be, but implementing a new high-speed rail system comes with a big price tag. Construction for the first leg that connects Baltimore to Washington is estimated to cost $10 billion, while the entire northeast corridor is estimated at $100 billion.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to contribute significant funds to build high-speed rail, as part of a broader $150 billion Japanese investment package presented to President Donald Trump during the bilateral meeting in Washington earlier this year. TNEM has already secured a $28 million federal grant to carry an environmental impact study for the first phase, but Rogers acknowledged that convincing taxpayers to pitch in will be a high hurdle.

"You'd say you are a generation behind, but we're two to three generations behind," Rogers said. "Some of the obstacles going forward is people just being able to envision the ability to build a brand new system on a congested corridor."

It's a system Japan has already built up, with the most extensive high-speed rail systems in the world. Now, it's hoping to take the technology beyond its borders, to keep the Japanese economy moving.

Correction: This story was revised to correct that Japan's high-speed rail systems are among the world's most extensive but are not the most extensive. It also was corrected to reflect that The Northeast Maglev secured a $28 million federal grant.