Hokuriku shinkansen setting tourists abuzz

Yet to open, frothy interest in new bullet train line from Nagano to Kanazawa bodes well for tourism


Staff Writer

On March 14, the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line will open as an extension of the Nagano Shinkansen Line, directly connecting Tokyo with Kanazawa and shortening the travel time to the scenic capital of Ishikawa Prefecture to 2½ hours from four.

Public excitement is mounting. Tickets for the debut run sold out in just 25 seconds when they went on sale Feb. 14, and the tourism industry and local governments are anticipating a significant boost in visitor volumes to the Hokuriku region.

Following are questions and answers about the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line:

Why was the line built?

It is part of a plan to build a nationwide network of bullet trains drafted in the 1970s. Other lines include the Hokkaido and Kyushu bullet train lines, which have been developed gradually.

The Ishikawa Prefectural Government says on its website that the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line will eventually become an alternative high-speed train line linking Tokyo with Osaka.

Currently, only the Tokaido Shinkansen Line connects the nation’s top two metropolises.

The Tokaido Shinkansen Line runs through central-southern Honshu along the Pacific coast, so if for instance a huge earthquake hits that region and paralyzes the line, there will be no high-speed rail alternative between Tokyo and Osaka, Ishikawa Prefecture says.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen Line goes to central northern Honshu, where Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui prefectures make up the Hokuriku region.

The new line extends the shinkansen system’s northward reach to Kanazawa, but it is eventually planned to also extend westward to Osaka, completing an alternative Tokyo-Osaka connection. It is unclear when that will happen, however.

How much did it cost to build?

The construction cost between Nagano and Kanazawa is about ¥1.76 trillion. The line is funded by the central government and regional governments.

Japan Railway Construction Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT), a semi-public body, is in charge of building the rails and stations, and owns them.

Which carrier will operate on the line?

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) and West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) will use the line and pay JRTT for the use of the rails, stations and other facilities. The rolling stock is owned by the railways.

JR East will operate between Tokyo and Joetsu Myoko in Niigata and JR West will run the section west of Joetsu Myoko.

What about profitability?

JR East and West estimate passenger volume of about 23,000 per day between Tokyo and Kanazawa but don’t expect the new line to turn a profit in the first three years.

According to their estimates submitted to the transport ministry, JR East expects a loss of ¥9.3 billion and JR West a loss of ¥25.4 billion over the first three years.

Yet Mitsuru Miyazaki, an analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center, said the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line has the potential to become a significant earner for the two railways.

The shortened travel time will attract many travelers who ordinarily would fly, he said.

“I think a lot of people fly to the Hokuriku region now . . . so it’s very likely the new shinkansen line will take significant market share away from the airlines,” said Miyazaki.

About 64 percent of the people who traveled between Tokyo and Kanazawa in fiscal 2013 flew, according to JR East. Among those who traveled between Tokyo and Toyama that year, 39 percent flew, the railway said.

What other benefits is the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line expected to bring?

Hopes are mounting in the tourism industry that the Hokuriku region will become a new booming destination, and the impact can already be seen in some statistics.

Travel agency JTB Corp. said the number of people visiting the Hokuriku region soared five-fold between April and June, boosted especially by a renewed focus on the region.

“I think the surge is mainly because of (the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line),” which had already been attracting attention, said Yuriko Kamiyama, a JTB spokeswoman.

The Hokuriku region is blessed with well-known tourist draws, including the traditional city of Kanazawa, local seafood, hot springs and traditional crafts.

While the tourism industry is anticipating a boost, the challenge is to turn what could end up being a short-term fad into a lasting popular destination.

Kamiyama said there are people who will board the new bullet trains just for the ride. They may at first be content just to ride the trains, but eventually they may become repeat visitors to the region, she said.

“So what we’ll need do is find ways to get them to want to visit the Hokuriku region again,” she said.