Ex-mayor’s idea for bus divides residents, sinks re-election

HACHIJO ISLAND, Tokyo — An unusual trailer bus put into service by the Hachijo town government in March seems to have produced at least two things: A mini tourism boom in another town nearly 300 km away, and, indirectly, the failed re-election bid of one of its own former mayors.

The trailer bus was the first of its type to operate on public roads in Tokyo. It is also possibly the first to operate anywhere in the nation, according to the Ministry of Transport.

Former Mayor Hideo Okuyama, 65, says he came up with the idea of using the bus for tourism purposes when he saw a “cool” passenger vehicle in Norway a few years ago. He first hoped to begin shuttle services between major hotels and hot springs, but various traffic regulations — those concerning road width for starters — forced him to give up the idea.

Now the 26-seat bus, which resembles a steam locomotive, runs mostly the same route as the town’s commercial buses. Every day, it makes five round trips on the 8.2-km 20-stop circuit between the Kaminato port district and Fureai-no-yu, a hot spring facility. Commercial buses do not go to the hot spring.

However, the trailer bus has also driven controversy into town. The vehicle consists of two separate sections — the driver’s compartment and engine, which uses the chassis of an ordinary tractor, and the passenger seating area in the back. A fare collector rides in the passenger section. Because roads on the island are narrow, the trailer bus, which can hit only 20 kph up hills, causes traffic congestion.