A friend who often goes to Ishikawa Prefecture for family reasons mentioned on Facebook last week that he took the overnight bus from Tokyo and arrived at Kanazawa Station at about the same time of the Hokuriku Shinkansen’s inaugural run. When I asked why he hadn’t taken the new train, he said it was impossible to get tickets, which is understandable considering so many people wanted to be on the first one. However, he also thinks the fare is too high and resents JR West and JR East, which jointly operate the line, for not offering the same kinds of discounts that other shinkansen offer for round trips and regular patrons.
This wasn’t the first complaint I’d heard about the new bullet train, but you have to dig to find a discouraging word. Mainstream media have been effusive in their coverage. NHK ran a special report several weeks ago on the new line, focusing on the sightseeing features of Kanazawa, the current terminal, and businesses that are moving operations to the Hokuriku area because it will now be less than 2½ hours from Tokyo. These segments were rebroadcast numerous times on various NHK news programs during the week leading up to the train’s launch on March 14. Though the story is newsworthy, the reporting is pure public relations, something NHK usually avoids since it is a public broadcaster.
Shinkansen are not 100 percent commercial enterprises, even if the JR companies that run them are nominally private firms. With the exception of JR Tokai’s maglev, the central government shoulders two-thirds of the cost of building new shinkansen lines, with the other third covered by the local governments whose bailiwicks the new lines go through. To use them, JR pays rent that goes toward settling the debt. So while in the long run the lines belong to the private sector, their conception and execution are centrally planned by the public sector, which means they are public-works projects.
Such enterprises never please everyone, and the coverage has been selective in order to highlight what’s good about the Hokuriku Shinkansen, namely its speed and cutting-edge comforts. Kanazawa is often compared to Kyoto because of its abundance of preserved structures and traditional atmosphere. It’s an easy city to sell in terms of tourism, and now people from Tokyo can reach it quickly by rail, a point that every report stresses and which rubs some people the wrong way, like the man who wrote a letter to Tokyo Shimbun two weeks ago to complain that satisfying the capital’s needs shortchanges people in the Kansai area.
Previously, Osakans who went to Kanazawa and beyond took the Thunderbird express, whose terminal was Toyama, which comes before Kanazawa on the Hokuriku Shinkansen if you’re traveling from Tokyo. With the opening of the new line, the Thunderbird’s end point will be changed to Kanazawa, so if you want to go to Toyama, you have to transfer to the new shinkansen and pay a higher fare, or take local lines, most of which used to belong to JR West. These lines are now third-sector railways. They’re on their own and have to cover all their own expenses, which means rationalization in the form of fewer runs, so getting to Toyama from Osaka is not only more expensive than it used to be, it takes longer. Representatives of JR have said that the company “took into consideration all our patrons’ convenience,” but obviously passengers from Tokyo have priority.
The Hakutaka rapid express used to connect the Hokuriku area to the Joetsu area along the Japan Sea, but the new shinkansen has appropriated the Hakutaka name without taking over the service. Rather than board one train from Toyama to Niigata, you now have to transfer. Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida is reportedly hopping mad, since his prefecture is being forced to pay for a third of the construction costs of the tracks in his constituency even though the fastest Hokuriku Shinkansen train, the Kagayaki super express, doesn’t stop at either of the two stations in Niigata. He wasn’t aware of this situation until after the line was built.
As a private concern, JR has to maximize revenues, so it makes sense to cut back on local services and spin off unprofitable lines. Besides, people in Hokuriku have demanded a shinkansen for years, so it’s not as if the new train isn’t welcome. But the earnestness of the PR shows that the only way the train will make money for the prefecture is to draw tourists from Tokyo. As the economist who goes by the pen name Gucci points out in his newsletter, the “economic effectiveness” of the new line has been exaggerated in this regard. The media says it will bring Ishikawa Prefecture ¥12 billion a year, which sounds like a lot until you realize the prefecture’s annual gross domestic product is ¥4 trillion, which means a boost of 0.3 percent set against its construction debt of ¥102 billion (with ¥100 billion more to pay for the planned extension). What’s more, business travelers from the capital will not spend as much money in Ishikawa since they can now return to Tokyo the same day they arrive. And even if more sightseers from Kanto want to travel to Hokuriku, there’s a limit. All northbound trains from Tokyo have to go through Omiya, where the Hokuriku and Joetsu lines diverge, and that route is already running at capacity, with a bullet train going through the station every 3.6 minutes at peak times.
No one is suggesting the Hokuriku Shinkansen isn’t an asset to the region, but as one element in a privately run transportation network, it will make local lines economically redundant. If the government really wants to “revitalize” depopulated regions, it has to make sure those regions have viable transportation. The new shinkansen should supplement such services, not contribute to their demise, and it is the media’s duty to point that out, but right now they’re caught up in the festive PR atmosphere. Kanazawans should enjoy the attention while they can. Next year, when the Hokkaido Shinkansen opens, they’ll be forgotten.