Okinawa set to launch first railway project to ease chronic traffic jams

by Nobutaka Kasai

Kyodo

Okinawa will set up a panel of scholars and other experts in fiscal 2014 to flesh out a plan to construct its first railway system.

Okinawa is the sole prefecture without a railway, except for a monorail line in the prefectural capital of Naha.

There used to be light railroads in Okinawa, but they were destroyed during the fierce Battle of Okinawa late in World War II.

While railways were extensively built in the rest of Japan as part of postwar reconstruction, no such work was carried out in Okinawa, which remained under U.S. administration until 1972.

In the absence of railways, automobiles are the principal means of transport, and thus heavy traffic congestion is part of daily life.

A survey conducted in 2010 by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism found main roads in Okinawa as congested as those in Tokyo’s 23 wards and in the city of Osaka. By city, traffic jams in Naha were the heaviest.

People in Okinawa are “so accustomed to traffic congestion they don’t recognize it as abnormal,” a prefectural official said.

The prefectural government plans to build a 69-km rail line to transport people between Naha in the southern part of Okinawa Island and Nago in the north in about an hour. The plan includes constructing a station on land occupied by U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan after the base is relocated.

On Dec. 17, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the central government’s go-ahead for the railway plan in fiscal 2014, which will begin April 1.

When meeting Nakaima again on Dec. 25, Abe said his administration will “do whatever it can” to help reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan. But he did not detail how the central government will support the railway plan.

The prefecture aims to complete the railway project in fiscal 2029 at the earliest, taking into account various hurdles, including the planned — but opposed — construction of Futenma’s replacement base.

The Cabinet Office estimates that the planned railway business will accumulate deficits totaling more than ¥600 billion in 40 years.

The prefectural government thus envisions that railroads and other infrastructure will be covered by funds from the central government and other public sources, while a private company will engage in nothing but operating the trains.

The use of train carriages smaller than usual and other cost-cutting measures will enable the service to climb into the black within a few years as long as it carries some 40,000 passengers per day, according to the prefectural government.

Okinawa will work out a plan by March for discussions by the study panel to prepare a final blueprint by fiscal 2015. The prefecture envisages the commencement of construction in fiscal 2019 and completion in fiscal 2029.

There are hurdles to clear for the plan, including the question of whether the central government will authorize the use of public funds for a private railway.

Although the central government maintains that the land site of the U.S. Futenma air base will be returned to Japan in fiscal 2022 or thereafter, a further delay would put off the construction plan.

Expecting the planned train service to carry “at least 30,000 to 40,000 passengers per day,” said Kazuya Kikuzato, a senior official in the prefectural government’s transport policy section, “there will be more users if people in the prefecture rethink their daily reliance on automobiles.

“A railway is indispensable as a principal means of transportation for Okinawa,” Kikuzato added.

  • Fred Flinstone

    Wow. The military not only gets to keep Futenma but they get their own fancy subway between bases too! Cool! Now all the military families can play and visit the big aquarium for very cheap and don’t need car. Me love you long long time just hop on new train and see me in 20 minutes.