Japan’s unprofitable local rail lines face cuts amid pandemic

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Local rail lines are in dire straits. Passenger numbers had already fallen due to depopulation and a shift towards car use over the years, but the coronavirus pandemic led to a further plunge and sparked a wave of change on unprofitable routes.

On April 6, the first day of the new term at Saijo Shisui High School, 17-year-old Tasuku Nakakura got out of a car at 7:35 a.m. outside the empty Taka Station on the Geibi Line in Shobara, Hiroshima Prefecture. , and walked through the station building unmanned to the platform. Five minutes later, he boarded a one-car train.

As usual, the train was almost deserted with only nine passengers on board, including two of his classmates. After about 15 minutes, he got off the train two stops at Bingo-Saijo station and walked to the school from there.

“I wonder if it will ever disappear,” Nakakura said, worrying about the future of the Geibi line.

In mountainous areas such as Shobara, it has become the norm for every adult to own a car, rather than having one per family. Some local lines are crowded in the morning and evening with high school students commuting, but even that role has diminished on the section taken by Nakakura.

Local Line Review

West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) President Kazuaki Hasegawa has embarked on a mission to reassess these local lines, announcing several times since January that he intends to review the lines with a average daily passenger volume, or transport density, of less than 2,000 people per kilometre. On April 11, it announces for the first time the results of 30 sections on 17 lines, including the Geibi Line.

The toll for the section between Bingo-Ochiai and Bingo-Shobara, which includes the two stations used by Nakakura, was 260 million yen in the red. Transport density in this section was 725 passengers in 1987 when JR West was established, but has now fallen to just over 60. JR West said such a drop would not immediately lead to abolition of the line, but the company said it would hold consultations with local municipalities on cost sharing.

Behind this sudden movement lies a change in the business environment. As passenger numbers have plummeted due to the pandemic, JR West is squirting red ink for the second straight year. The system of “internal subsidies”, under which the profits of shinkansen and other lines in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area are used to cover the deficits of local lines, is collapsing.

Although JR became a private enterprise following the privatization of Japan National Railways, it still bears a heavy responsibility as a public transport provider. JR has taken over assets such as rail lines, while the state has taken on much of the long-term debt, and it still provides many benefits in various ways.

Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki complained that the assumption of privatization was that JR would be able to obtain sufficient total revenues by having profitable lines covering loss-making lines. “We’re not going to let them eliminate local lines just because their deficits have gone up,” he said.

JR, however, is not backing down.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is also acting on its side. It launched an expert group to study regional railways and held its first meeting in February.

Yoshiro Taguchi, head of the railway affairs division of the ministry, explained at the meeting that in 1987, when the six companies of the Japan Railways group were established, lines with a transport density of less than 2,000 accounted for 16% of all lines, but this figure has increased. 39% in the fiscal year beginning April 2020.

Taguchi said the purpose of the panel discussions is not to keep the current rail network unchanged in 20 or 30 years. “Some lines would be more convenient for passengers if they were moved to a different use,” he said, urging the panel to come up with a proposal around July.

JR West Vice President Shoji Kurasaka also attended the meeting and said, “The internal subsidy system is no longer viable. We don’t have much time. »

During the discussion among the five panel members, some expressed opinions consistent with Taguchi’s comments, saying that a distinction should be made between lines that should be preserved and those that should not.

A senior Hiroshima prefectural official suspects JR is going to great lengths to get the ministry to act, as they appear to be taking a common stance.

Satoshi Fukuoka, mayor of Miyoshi in Hiroshima Prefecture and chairman of a four-city council along the Geibi line, has a growing sense of crisis. “Local rail lines have become an urgent issue for the whole nation. The talks are proceeding at an unprecedented speed.

Saving local lines after disasters

Akihiro Nishihiro, 75, who lives near Shirakiyama Station on the Geibi Line, recalls the inconvenience he experienced four years ago when the station was closed after heavy rain.

On the night of July 6, 2018, when torrential rains hit western Japan, Nishihiro, who was the head of a community association, called his neighbors and evacuated to a local community center. Around 8 p.m., a rumbling sounded in the area. He thought it was thunder, but when he checked the next day, he found that the nearby Misaki River No. 1 Bridge on the Geibi Line had collapsed and been swept away.

The Misaki River Bridge No. 1 on the Geibi Line collapsed in July 2018 after torrential rains hit western Japan. | CHUGOKU SHIMBUN

Subsequently, the 4.5-kilometer stretch of line between Karuga and Nakamita, which includes Shirakiyama Station, was closed for one year and three months.

“Until then I took it for granted, but I was so thankful for it after it was decommissioned,” Nishihiro said.

While the section was closed, Nishihiro walked one stop and used the Geibi line from a station where trains were running. The number of cars increased and the roads in the neighborhood became congested. When the reconstruction was completed and service resumed in October 2019, he rejoiced with his neighbors saying, “The Geibi line must be there.

According to the Hiroshima branch of JR West, the total cost of restoring the bridge was 1.26 billion yen. Of this amount, JR West paid 386 million yen for bridge repairs, and Hiroshima Prefecture paid 876 million yen for river repairs and other works.

Meanwhile, other sections of local rail lines across Japan have been closed after natural disasters, including the Kesennuma Line in Miyagi Prefecture and the Ofunato Line in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, which suffered damage during the Great East Japan earthquake in 2011. As passenger numbers had already declined on both lines, East Japan Railway Co. gave up restoring the damaged sections and converted the tracks for rail services. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

Hokkaido Railway Co.’s loss-making Hidaka line was also removed after suffering damage from high waves in 2015 and has since been converted to bus services.

In 2017, some sections of Kyushu Railway Co.’s Hita-Hikosan Line were suspended after being damaged by torrential rains. Soeda City and Toho Village in Fukuoka Prefecture, as well as Hita City in Oita Prefecture, requested the line be restored, but JR Kyushu requested a total of 160 million yen per year to the three municipalities, saying that even if the line was restored, an annual deficit of 260 million yen was expected.

The village of Toho was willing to make a financial contribution, but the other two municipalities did not accept the request. In 2020, it was decided to switch the line to a BRT service. Hiroaki Shibuya, 72, a former mayor of Toho who was in charge of negotiations at the time, said, “JR was determined to abolish the unprofitable line. We cannot win without the solidarity of the mayors involved.

Perhaps due to climate change, heavy rains occur almost every year in many parts of the country. Several JR lines run along coasts or near mountains, where the risk of disaster is high.

Hirokazu Kato, a professor of public transport policy at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Engineering, points out that “JR wants to cut highly unprofitable lines in the event of a major disaster.”

Kato says that if municipalities are serious about saving their local lines, residents should take the initiative to use the lines, and local governments should be actively involved in taking disaster prevention measures.

In the aftermath of torrential rains in 2018 that damaged the Geibi Line and other lines in Hiroshima Prefecture, JR West restored them all. However, the business environment has changed drastically since the pandemic hit in 2020.

According to the balance sheets of loss-making lines announced by JR West, five sections of the Geibi line, including the one with the Misaki River Bridge No. 1, were on average in the red by a total of 2.3 billion yen between the fiscal year 2017 and fiscal year 2019.

A local government official along the Geibi line fears that the difficult trading conditions will further damage the future of the local line.

“Disasters can happen at any time. If something like the torrential rain in western Japan happens again, I wonder if the railway line can be saved,” the official said.

This section introduces topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original articles were published on April 15 and 16.

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