Light rail finds home in Toyama

New streetcars get seniors back on the moving track

by Tetsuro Koyama

Kyodo

The mayor of Toyama sparked some major urban development in his rapidly graying city when he launched last year what is considered Japan’s first full-scale light rail transit system.

“The new transportation system is destined to run in the red at first. But it is a vital necessity,” the 55-year-old Masashi Mori told his city at the time.

Public transit has been urged to act as a business that can be profitable on its own since the beginning of modern times in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Mori has defied that century-old standard.

Like other streetcar systems in Japan, Toyama’s light rail trains are electric, can be single or multiple units, and run on separate rights-of-way or in mixed traffic.

Toyama’s system, named Portram, started service in April 2006, replacing a heavy rail line operated by West Japan Railway Co.

A two-car train travels along a 7.6-km section linking the north gate of JR Toyama Station and an area near Toyama port on the Sea of Japan coast.

It is operated by Toyama Light Rail Co., an entity nearly half owned by the public sector, including the city, with the remainder owned by Hokuriku Electric Power Co. and other private businesses.

Passengers on the low-floor train have a broad view of the Japan Alps south of the city as it passes along the downtown streets and past dwellings and fields.

The white coaches seat 80 and reach speeds of 60 kph.

“The name of the game was how to address the rapidly shrinking and fast-aging population,” Mori said.

Toyama Prefecture, where a large chunk of the population lives in suburban areas, typically depends on automobiles. Ownership averages 1.73 vehicles per household, the second highest in Japan, while the population density in the most crowded part of the city of Toyama is the lowest among all prefectural capitals.

“Our city is a very convenient place for car owners. . . . But elderly ladies living alone (who do not drive) can’t even go shopping,” the mayor said.

The city’s current population of some 420,000 is forecast to shrink by about 20 percent by 2040, and the elderly are expected to account for about 37 percent of the total, up from 22 percent now.

Residents are expected to move farther into the suburbs, expanding the costs of public services such as snow removal and road maintenance. The city estimates the costs will increase by 12 percent per resident in two decades.

“I had to steer things in order to build a compact town. The problem was how to get residents to band together again,” Mori said in explaining his decision to introduce light rail to improve the quality of mass transit.

Compared with the days of JR West, passengers have more than doubled to 5,000 per weekday and jumped nearly five times higher to 5,600 on weekends and holidays.

Of particular note for Toyama, the number of passengers age 60 or older has soared 3.5 times on weekdays and 7.4 times on weekends and holidays.

“Those figures show that the elderly, who had stayed home, have started to go outside, and in the coming days old people will become more active,” Mori said.

“It was one of the most difficult tasks for the elderly who have not driven cars to go out into the town,” said Yoshimitsu Kametani, the 78-year-old chairman of a citizens’ group promoting the new trolleys. “But now, they even find it difficult to stay at home (because they can go out so easily.)”

The city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, plans to launch a 1.7-km light rail system, possibly in late fiscal 2010.

“My ride on the Portram was very good,” Keiichiro Tamura, 54, chief of Sakai’s effort, said after inspecting the Toyama system. “Public transportation systems are important for a rapidly aging society.”

Sakai’s public-private LRT will eventually be operated by two private railways.

It is not only the elderly who take the Portram in Toyama. In the daytime, high school students use it to commute to school and back, while the last train is packed with passengers who have been drinking after work near JR Toyama Station.

The population in downtown Toyama increased by a net 37 people in fiscal 2006 after dropping in the preceding years, thanks to tax incentives for residents in such areas. “The figure may be negligibly small. But the increase means a lot,” Mori said.

The city plans to link the light rail line, which runs north of JR Toyama Station, with a private tram line to the south of the station in fiscal 2014, when an expanded Hokuriku Shinkansen Line serving Toyama opens.

Light rail services have proved useful in reviving downtown districts in Portland, Ore., and Strasbourg, France.

“Tramcars are something like elevators which move horizontally,” said Kiyohito Utsunomiya, author of “Romen-Densha (Streetcar) Renaissance.” “Nobody who is using an elevator worries whether the one he or she is riding is operating in the red or black. We are in an era when public transportation systems should be considered part of our urban infrastructure.”