The spirit of Japan’s fading local railways

10/14/2011
By

Towada Kanko Electric Railway

TOKYO (majriox news) — Rolling through woods in dark greens straight out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Tonari No Totoro, the local train rolls across trestles over pebble filled streams, where anglers wave as it passes by.

Japan’s local lines are part of the identity of rural Japan. Often just one or two cars riding a causeway above rice paddies or along quiet and deserted seacoasts. Some like the Enoden Line in the city of Kamakura have become famous tourist attractions.

But most are in deep financial trouble. Thirty-three lines have been removed since 2000, and with them 634 kilometers (394 miles) of track. Of the 92 local lines running in 2009, 76 lines, over 80%, were running in the red, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).

“We recognize the necessity of supporting public transportation, but this does not mean subsidizing local railroads,” said an official of the MLIT.

The Towada Kanko Electric Railway running from Towada to Sanchaku in Aomori prefecture is shutting down by the end of the year. The railway company will start running a bus line for its customers.

“We were founded in 1922,” said the railway’s President Tetsuemon Shiraishi. “In the 1970s, we carried about 1.4 million passengers a year. This year we had less than 30% of that about 459,000 passengers.”

Since 2002, local governments and businesses subsidized the railway line. However, for the next 10 years, subsidy estimates for operating expenses and track improvements came to about 520 million yen ($6.2 million) and the three municipalities that Towada Railway passes through refused to pay.

“We see no possibility that the profitability of Towada Railway will improve,” they said in a statement.

“Without the financial support of these municipalities, it’s impossible for us to continue operations,” President Shiraishi said.

Although a few local lines have been subsidized by local governments or in some cases by local citizen groups who believe that the local rail lines are indispensable to their region, most have fallen victim to the plummeting populations in rural areas. To a lesser extent, they have also fallen victim to road construction in rural areas by some prefectures, despite cut backs in the building of roads on the national level.

“As the road network develops more and more,” said Professor Kenichi Masashi of Kobe University Graduate School. “The number of railroad users rapidly decline”.

Added to these woes of the Towada Railway is that the Tohoku Shinkansen will be opening a station near to the current Towada station, drawing even more passengers away from Towada Railway.

A few local lines like the Kishigawa Line in Wakayama will continue to soldier on. The rest are doomed to disappear within the next few years.

Link to the train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4my82FKfOrg

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