IT’S TIME to deploy the big guns. Certainly the Japanese government thinks so. Vice-Minister for Transport Katsuji Doi invited himself to Beijing in December - taking the initiative for what will be a crucial 12 months as Japanese and European groups slog it out for rights to build the 1300 km high speed line between Beijing and Shanghai.

The battle has been warming up since China’s Ministry of Railways announced last June that it hoped to start construction of either the Beijing - Tianjin or Shanghai - Nanjing section next year to provide a technology proving ground. Two months earlier the Chinese and Japanese governments signed a railway co-operation and technical assistance agreement in Beijing, opening the door for JR-East, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi to put a bid together.

Their main rival is a consortium of Alstom and Siemens, which under the ’Eurotrain’ banner and with Siemens leading has gained the title of ’best applicant’ for the Taipei - Kaohsiung high speed line concession. No doubt CR is keeping a close eye on progress to see if the Europeans can successfully deliver a private sector project on this scale. The Eurotrain partners are well aware of the prize - Taiwan is unlikely to build further high speed lines, but the potential in China is vast.

Both groups have been vying to offer the Chinese the best financial package, and both are offering local assembly. But what is most likely to win or lose the battle is long term technology transfer. Hence Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi discussed the scope for a technology transfer deal when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Tokyo last November.

With the technical specification for the Jinghu line becoming clearer, it is obvious that both sides will need to deploy all their expertise and experience. Required capacity is now put at 120 million passengers a year - comparable with JR Central’s Tokyo - Osaka shinkansen service where trains leave the capital at metro frequency. A derivative of JR East’s Series E4 double-deck set would be a formidable challenge for the Eurotrain team.