TOKYO: A hum whirrs in the air as the bullet train weaves into the station, arriving after a 91-minute journey from Sendai, 350km away.
Like clockwork, hundreds of people step off as station crew ready the train for its next trip.
In 10 minutes, a few hundred more are seated as the doors close, and the train whizzes off at 320kph through the countryside.
This is the Shinkansen – the today of Japan that may be Malaysia’s future.
As Malaysia moves towards a high-income economy by 2020, a number of government projects have been pushed to realise this.
One such project is the high-speed rail (HSR), a 320km line that will link Kuala Lumpur with Singapore and ferry passengers between the cities – a service that is set to rival air travel.
Since its announcement last year, many countries have stepped up to try and bid for what will be Asean’s first high-speed train.
One of them is Japan, which introduced the bullet train in 1964 when the world was exploring mass civilian air travel.
Led by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), Japan seeks to bring its technology to Malaysia, promising punctuality and safety.
“Japan can offer the safety and reliability of the Shinkansen, and we can share experiences learned during its 50 years of service,” said JR East International Department general manager Takeshi Tsuyoshi.
(JR East is part of a four-company consortium formed in 2013 to bring the Shinkansen to Malaysia.)
The Japanese group is also banking on its impeccable safety record – none of its passengers have been killed in the Shinkansen’s 50 years of service.
In fact, none of its high-speed trains were even derailed when the 9.0-Richter earthquake hit Japan’s east coast in 2011.
Touting a culture of reliability, the Japanese believe that should they succeed in their bid to build in Malaysia, they would have bullet trains capable of carrying thousands of Malaysians every hour.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) states that the Tokyo Station serves some 15 Shinkansen train sets each hour during peak times.
And Shinkansen trains record an average delay of just one minute per trip.
Each train set is capable of shuttling 700 to 1,634 passengers, many times the capacity of the Electric Train Service.
It is unclear if Sungai Besi, which will serve as the starting point for Malaysia’s HSR, will enjoy such a demand.
MLIT (railway bureau) Office of Project Coordination director Tomohiro Kobayashi feels, however, that a HSR could completely overtake air travel.
“The distance between Tokyo and Nagoya is like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and the share for railway is 71%, but for airplanes, almost none,” he said.
The Japanese also claim that their technology is cost-effective yet not sacrificing seating capacity.
With a width of 3.38m, Shinkansen allows for five seats from side to side instead of the usual four.
Should it be constructed in Malaysia, a lot of the tracks may be built on viaducts or embankments that can mitigate floods, a problem in some parts of the country.
“We have developed embankments that could withstand tsunami waters. I’m sure it can work against floods,” said Railway Technical Research Institute Prof Katsumi Muramoto.
Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar said he expected construction of the HSR to start in 2016.
Seven stations in Malaysia have been identified – Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Seremban, Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat and Nusajaya – with travel time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore expected to take some 90 minutes.
The HSR may start off with four trains on its tracks and is estimated to cost RM38.4bil to build.
Transport experts said a Malaysian HSR would only work if it was supported by other modes of public transit.
Transit expert Mohamad Zulkarnain Hamzah said such services were lacking in most cities in the country and that only cars filled in the transport gaps.
“Will the average Malaysian ditch his car in favour of a more expensive HSR ride from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca during balik kampung time?” he asked.
He said Malaysians had no choice but to use their cars for long trips and that connectivity was a problem.
Transit expert Moaz Ahmad said that a metro or rapid transit was needed in cities linked by the HSR, adding that much of Taiwan did not have metro networks after the opening of its HSR in 2007.
“Only Taipei and Kaohsiung had metro networks when the HSR line started. Other cities had to make do with feeder buses connecting the stations to the cities,” he said.
Malaysia is expected to connect its central HSR station at Sungai Besi with the metro, most likely the MRT network.
Other HSR-linked cities in Malaysia at the moment are not serviced by metro lines, much less frequent feeder buses.
Kobayashi said “conventional” railways suffered if their routes were parallel to the Shinkansen’s and the Japanese had yet to find a way to resolve this.
Shinkansen expert Christopher Hood said integrated transport was much needed as most people in Japan did not live near HSR stations.
He added that Japan also did not integrate its HSR with airports, seeing them as competitors instead, “much to the detriment of the country and possibly also local economies in some cases”.
He said with Shinkansen development often came improved local public transport, though this depended on local demand and city size.
Road links in Shinkansen cities, he said, also needed to be improved due to increased traffic.
“The impact on smaller towns and cities may not be so great,” he added.
The average Shinkansen speed is about 240kph (on certain lines), with top speeds up to 320kph.