Japanese Companies Help Build Metro Lines Overseas; JR East And Others Share More Than A Century’s Worth Of Knowledge

Hidetaka Yamamura / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Subway construction work using Japanese tunneling technology is underway in Valenzuela, Philippines.

Around the world, railroads, which are environmentally friendly and help alleviate road congestion, are becoming more and more central to mass transportation networks. Many large cities in Southeast Asia are now working hard to develop urban railways in hopes that this new infrastructure will trigger economic growth. Japanese companies, with the technology and skills to build high-quality infrastructure, are making their presence felt in these places.

A shield tunneling machine about 7 meters in diameter is digging through earth and sand, adjusting its angle in millimeter increments as it goes, in a subterranean space near Manila. Once completed, the tunnel it is digging will be the first subway in the Philippines and is expected to mitigate the city’s serious traffic congestion.

In addition to some of the world’s most advanced tunneling technology, the huge amount of know-how that Japan has cultivated through more than 150 years of constructing railroads has been brought into the Manila subway project.

“The quality of the soil changes with every meter dug,” said Mitsuru Yasui, the construction manager of Shimizu Corp., a major general contractor for this section.

Yasui has been involved in tunneling projects in Japan and other parts of Asia for about 30 years.

“We have to look at the dirt left over after drilling to determine the soil condition beyond that point,” he said.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. attended a ceremony to mark the start of tunnelling in January 2023, and national expectations for the project are growing.

A Philippine Transportation Department official said that the Philippines still has limited expertise in the construction, operation and maintenance of public transportation systems, and Japan’s support would help make the project possible.

Far fewer problems

Bangkok, once known as one of the most congested cities in the world, is expanding its urban railway network. Its MRT Purple Line, which opened in 2016, uses rolling stock from Japan Transport Engineering Co., a subsidiary of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East). JR East, Marubeni Corp. and Toshiba Corp. cooperatively manage and maintain the line.

According to the Thai Rail Transport Department, the Purple Line has had far fewer problems than other lines, accounting only for about 1% of all problems occurring on Bangkok’s six urban rail lines in 2021. JR East says that it tries to reduce the number of problems by closely monitoring wear and tear of parts and replacing them when appropriate.

In December 2022, Bangladesh’s first urban railroad began operation in Dhaka, employing Japan’s Official Development Assistance office and bringing in helpful features such as women-only cars and platform doors. A new line using Hitachi Ltd. railcars is expected to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Urban railway networks are quickly expanding across Southeast Asia

Beyond the railway lines

The know-how that Japan has accumulated is not limited to the railroad business itself but could potentially facilitate development in the areas around train stations. In Southeast Asia, railroad companies and real estate developers do not coordinate with each other, which results in situations in which a station is built but there are no commercial facilities around it.

“People in Thailand still think of railroads and real estate separately. In Japan, you integrate them, so things are more efficient,” Bangkok Gov. Chadchart Sittipunt, a former transport minister and an expert on transportation policy, said.

JR companies earn revenue not only from the ticket fares, but also from real estate, he said. He added emphatically, “We have more to learn from you [Japan].”

Takashi Itoda / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A metro train runs through the center of Bangkok.

In addition to this, Japan’s Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) is helping to develop the area around a railway terminal in northern Bangkok.

In addition to the usual perks of doing business, there are other advantages to Japanese companies pursuing railroad projects in emerging countries.

Homare Komata, an official in the International Policy and Project Division within the Railway Bureau of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Ministry, was previously dispatched to work as a specialist with the Thai Rail Transport Department.

“The number of people who have the know-how to open new rail lines has been decreasing in Japan. Being involved in railroad operations overseas is a good way to pass on those skills,” he said.