Japan’s local rail lines are in trouble. Between 2000 and 2021 alone, forty-five train lines spanning 1,158 kilometers were decommissioned across Japan. Other local train lines have reduced operating hours, staff and special ticket discounts across the country. The trend threatens to block some residents of regional Japan.
Rail operators, including those affiliated with regional operating units of the Japan Railways Group (JR), say the line closures are a natural result of rural-to-urban migration, falling birth rates and rising automobile transport. Some observers argue that rural depopulation and increased car use are often not the cause but rather the result of the closure of local train lines.
One of the justifications provided by train operators for shutting down local train services is simply that these train lines are not as profitable as their counterparts in densely populated urban areas such as Tokyo or Osaka.
The history of the Japan Railways (JR) group helps to explain this reasoning. In 1987, the public entity of Japanese National Railways was privatized and divided into seven separate entities under the name of JR.
Since then, JR’s sales and profits have grown and continued to do so through the 2000s and 2010s. taxpayers’ money to cover local operating deficits. Some operators have threatened to shut down local rail lines if these demands are not met.
Some prefectures cooperated. For example, JR East recently reached an agreement with Fukushima Prefecture to reopen previously decommissioned sections of the Tadami Line. Under the agreement, Fukushima Prefecture will purchase rail infrastructure and land while leasing its operation to JR East.
But other regional governments have been less able to implement this model. National law states that JR must obtain the “understanding” of municipalities (rikai) before decommissioning a local railway line.
As a result, local governments, whose shoestring budgets are insufficient to cover JR’s losses, but who also do not wish to lose any of their most important infrastructure, have simply avoided entering into negotiations with JR. .
Therefore, JR adopted other methods of disengaging from local rail lines, including reducing services to the bare minimum. In some places, JR has even dropped student passes.
Today, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has provided JR with new opportunities to make more cuts and demand more public compensation. JR Central, JR West and JR East all posted record losses in the first quarter of 2021 as train ridership fell sharply and precipitously.
In this environment, JR West adopted a new response. In February 2022, it began publishing data on the “underperforming” and “unprofitable” local rail lines it operates. Any train line or section of a train line with fewer than 2,000 passengers per kilometer on an average day has been targeted for scrutiny. This includes a total of 30 sections on 17 different train lines and accounts for approximately one-third of JR West’s total operating lines.
JR West’s losses reached 116.5 billion yen (about $1 billion) due to COVID-19. But the company had already cut costs and closed smaller local lines long before that. During its 35 years of operation, JR West has closed 16 sections of railway lines. More recently, in 2018, it decommissioned the 108 km Sankō Line connecting Hiroshima and Tottori prefectures.
Among the train lines currently in question, the Mainichi Shimbun quoted Hasegawa saying:
It is going to be difficult to continue to maintain these lines. We have to start asking ourselves whether we need it or not.
In the Sankei Shimbun, Hasegawa reportedly said, “I hope we don’t just have to tell local governments that we’re going to shut them down. [train lines] down.”
Reactions to the local train line crisis in Japan among netizens have been mixed. A local resident questioned the practice of measuring ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic:
芸備線 生活利用促進の取り組み「成果なし」JR西日本が所見 イベント集客は成功も | https://t.co/DnWz8PmaTn
— こうちゃん@東海地区タクドラ4月帰省目標 (@hakodate1000758) February 20, 2022]
It is a mistake to try to assess such numbers (traffic) during the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place. People are hesitant to travel and there are no foreign tourists either. It is therefore unfair to take such measures in this situation.
Meanwhile, Hasegawa said affected regions could prepare for the worst by switching to more bus or taxi transportation. The president of JR West also said that his company would be more inclined to keep the lines in service if certain conditions were met.
One option suggested by Hasegawa was to separate infrastructure and operations (jōge bunri hōshiki) asking local governments to buy the train line and hiring JR to manage its operation. Another card Hasegawa put on the table was to receive more financial support and grants.
None of these options is likely to be very attractive to the regions and municipalities concerned. Either they cover JR West’s deficits or they risk losing a key part of their infrastructure with potentially even more disastrous economic and social effects.
In Japan and beyond, COVID-19 has been more than a public health disaster. Japan’s local rail service crisis is just one example of a big business taking advantage of the pandemic to cut public services, while boosting profits.