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As rural rail lines close bus travel gets a makeover

by Philip Brasor

Spring is the season of renewal, for commerce as well as nature. Until the early 1990s, Japanese labor unions almost always went on strike this time of the year and the public braced itself for inconvenient commutes since transport workers, especially Japan National Railways (JNR) employees, would mobilize. But spring is also when railroads come out with new daiya (timetables), which symbolize Japan’s storied transportation efficiency.

This year’s daiya season has been particularly auspicious. There’s the new fare system integrating different regional IC cards so that they all work on one another’s lines; a new Shinkansen model that clocked a record 320 kph, making it the fastest train in the world; and the linkup between Tokyu’s Toyoko and Tokyo Metro’s Fukutoshin lines, connecting Yokohama with Saitama Prefecture. In addition, three JR East lines connecting Ueno Station in eastern Tokyo with the northern Kanto Plain will soon be extended to Tokyo Station and the Tokaido Line, which links Tokyo to western Japan.

These developments are testimony to Japan’s genius for moving people from one place to another. What they have in common is a focus on Tokyo: All were implemented to make it easier for anyone to get to and around the capital. Tokyo is the world’s most crowded metropolis, and any infrastructural changes require superhuman planning expertise.

Last week the media described the immense effort that went into redirecting the Toyoko Line from its former terminal on an upper floor of Shibuya Station to deep underground, and without inconveniencing patrons. TV cameras were there to cover the expected confusion that would result on the first Monday the new system went into effect and found that commuters are every bit as resourceful as the engineers.

If you live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, you have access to the greatest network in the universe, but if you don’t you may find your local transportation options dwindling. A recent feature in Tokyo Shimbun explains the plight of communities situated along the Tadami River in Fukushima Prefecture. The Tadami Line first opened in 1926, but in July 2011 the river overflowed due to torrential rains and washed away three bridges. Train service was suspended and since then only partially resumed on certain sections. Buses have been provided by JR East to connect these sections, but in the winter the only major road in the area is impassable due to snow.

JR East has cited these problems as reasons for shutting down stations on the Tadami Line permanently. It has been in the red for decades, what with the population of the surrounding towns shrinking from 12,000 in the 1960s to 4,700. Forty percent of the residents are over 65. Tourist numbers have also declined, from 220,000 in 2010 to 150,000. The prefecture has asked the central government to subsidize the Tadami Line in order to keep it running, but JR East is a private company that happens to be making a profit now, and while the transport ministry still has oversight powers for all public transportation there’s no reason to expect it will step in to save the Tadami Line.

Several months ago Seibu Railway Co. reported that the U.S. investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, which is buying stock in parent company Seibu Holdings in a bid to influence management, had proposed a restructuring plan that included discontinuing five small regional lines. Cerberus has since said it has no intention to shut down anything, but the governor of Saitama, where one of these targeted lines is located, has publicly asked Seibu to ensure the line remains in operation.

The issue of closing rural railroads has both practical and emotional ramifications. The privatization of Japan’s national corporations started traumatically 25 years ago when JNR was broken up into regional companies whose obligation to shareholders eclipses their service responsibilities to the public, even if the original construction was carried out with public money.

Rural rail travel is as central to Japan’s self-image as cherry blossoms. The government still funds private railroads, but only in terms of construction of new Shinkansen lines, which is considered a matter of national interest. As the Tokyo Shimbun reporter comments in his article, the public outlay to reclaim the title of fastest train in the world means nothing to the average person since that record-breaking speed is achieved only intermittently on one stretch of track. How many Tadami Lines could be kept running for the same amount of money?

Another Tokyo Shimbun article points to an alternative that will not please densha otaku (train freaks) but nevertheless could be a solution to the problem of evaporating access. Some coastal railways were destroyed by the tsunami of 3/11, and JR East set up makeshift bus lines for local residents. Now, the company is thinking that rather than repair the railways, which will lose money anyway, it could improve the bus network. Though buses always take longer than trains do to get from point A to point B, they can be operated more flexibly, making them not only more convenient but, in the long run, cheaper, too.

It will take more work to make buses as romantic as trains, but there is a model. Once, TV travel shows were all about trains, but TV Tokyo broadcasts an occasional series called “Rokaru Rosen Basu Noritsugi no Tabi” (“Journey by Local Route Bus Connections”), in which celebrities must get from one designated city to another by private and municipal bus lines.

The show’s entertainment value is derived from the difficulty of making connections that often involve waiting two hours for the next bus in some backwater, thus providing the on-screen talent with opportunities to sample local wares and cuisine. It’s already spawned a copycat show on NHK. The drawbacks of rural bus travel described on the program could be helpful to transit companies looking to improve their systems, but they also pose a challenge to people who love public transportation: Who says you can’t get there from here?