Back on track: Sanriku Railway’s long road to recovery

Trains running again on stretches of two lines swallowed by tsunami

by Ryotaro Nakamaru

Kyodo

A little more than three years after the devastating earthquake paralyzed the northeast, coastal communities shattered by the ensuing tsunami are slowly returning to normal. Shops that were destroyed are gradually reopening. Residents forced to evacuate to distant parts are returning to their hometowns.

And soon, communities along the coast of Iwate Prefecture will take another step toward recovery: Sanriku Railway Co. is set to restart full-scale operation of its South Rias and North Rias lines.

Train runs are set to resume on a 15-km stretch between Yoshihama and Kamaishi stations on the southern line Saturday, and on a 10.5-km stretch between Omoto and Tanohata stations on the northern line Sunday.

Covering most of Iwate’s coastline, Sanriku Railway’s two lines were a central part of life for many residents before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But the railway was crippled by the tsunami after its train cars were flooded beyond repair and entire sections of track were swallowed whole.

“Seeing the state the tracks were in, I thought we would never recover,” said Shoichi Kumagai, a 30-year veteran at Sanriku Railway.

“It seemed like the world was about to break apart,” he said, recalling the magnitude-9.0 earthquake.

“Immediately following the disasters, everyone was just trying to survive,” he said. “But as soon as things settled down, I had people come up to me and ask, ‘Can we ride the train yet?’ “

With roads destroyed or blocked by rubble, the people at Sanriku Railway knew they had to act quickly. The North Rias Line resumed operation just five days after the quake, carrying passengers free of charge across the small portion of tracks that was left undamaged.

The South Rias Line, however, was more severely damaged and took more than two years for partial operations to resume.

It was not just the trains and tracks, however, that needed to be repaired. The station buildings and bridges also took severe damage, and the South Rias Line’s main office in the city of Ofunato was flooded by tsunami.

“The seawater filled the first floor, so all of the employees fled to the second floor office,” Kumagai said.

Many of Sanriku Railway’s employees were themselves victims of the disaster. Taiki Sato, 28, had been working there as an engineer for less than a year when the quake and tidal waves hit.

“My wife was pregnant then, and her parents’ house got washed away in the tsunami. We both lived out of our workplaces after that, on constant standby.”

“Now that all operations are going back online, it’s really hitting home that things are returning back to normal,” Saito said.

For the past three years, Sanriku Railway has worked with the government-backed Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency to rebuild its facilities.

The roughly ¥10 billion in rebuilding costs were originally to be shared by the railway, the Iwate Prefectural Government and the central government. But the central government ended up shouldering the entire cost.

The railway also received support from outside Japan. Kuwait donated roughly ¥40 billion in crude oil to the three prefectures most heavily damaged by the disasters, and Iwate used part of its share to buy five new train cars for Sanriku Railway.

Residents along the lines are more than eager for the trains to be restored.

“I used to take my children on the southern line all the time when they were little,” said Kuniko Minawa, 65. “It was sad having train tracks but no train running on them. Once it starts back up, I’d like to take the train to see my husband’s old house.”

Haruka Mori, 18, said: “I always use Sanriku Railway to come to Ofunato to hang out. I want to ride the entire length of the southern line when it starts up again.”

“There’s still a lot of rebuilding to do, but the resumption of the Sanriku lines makes me think progress is becoming more visible,” Mori said.

Starting full operation is only the first step in Sanriku Railway’s rebirth, however. Like many other small regional train lines, the North Rias and South Rias lines suffer from a dearth of regular customers.

Populations in the countryside are on the decline, and more and more people use cars to get around.

Sanriku Railway has worked to cover those losses by attracting tourists from other prefectures, operating special event trains, such as the Disaster Education Train, in which company employees lecture passengers on the damage the Great East Japan Earthquake wreaked on the railway and surrounding areas, and the Omiai Train, where passengers sit face to face in search of a potential marriage partner.

The number of tourists riding the Sanriku lines also got a boost from a cameo appearance by the North Rias Line in the hugely popular TV drama “Amachan.”

But with the six-day-a-week, half-year-long show ending six months ago, it remains to be seen whether the railway lines can sustain the growth in popularity.

“We received kind words and support from people all over Japan, and I think the only way we can show our thankfulness is to show that we have more passengers now than ever,” said Sanriku Railway’s Kumagai.

“Of course we want local passengers, but we want to plan all kinds of events so that people from outside Iwate will visit disaster-struck areas,” he said.