SAPPORO – The opening on Saturday of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, a high-speed railway connecting Hokkaido with Honshu via an undersea tunnel, will be the culmination of an epic project almost 43 years in the making.
The project involved difficult construction work for the Seikan Tunnel, including many worker fatalities. It also saw heated competition for state funds with other regional communities eager to be linked with Tokyo through vaunted shinkansen services.
And now, “The dream of Hokkaido residents,” as Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi puts it, is finally being fulfilled.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen Line project to connect Aomori and Sapporo was adopted by the government in November 1973. But the government put a temporary freeze on the project in September 1982 due to economic stagnation after the second oil crisis and the enormous debts burdening the state-run Japanese National Railways.
Subsequently, Hokkaido faced rival bids from other municipalities for a slice of the limited national budget for shinkansen lines.
“The strongest rival was the Hokuriku Shinkansen (Line),” recalls a person involved in the Hokkaido project. “It was backed by influential politicians and the three prefectures of the Hokuriku region worked together closely. The competition drove home to us the weight of political power.”
The Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which links Tokyo with the Hokuriku region on the Sea of Japan coast as an extension of the Nagano Shinkansen Line, opened in March 2015.
The Seikan Tunnel, which runs under the Tsugaru Strait, opened to traffic in 1988 after nearly a quarter century of challenging construction work. It was originally designed to have a regular track for regional railway services, but was constructed with a wider track in mind to accommodate bullet trains after the project was adopted.
“We encouraged each other with the slogan ‘bring the shinkansen to Hokkaido,’ ” said Toshio Kadoya, an 81-year-old former construction worker at the mouth of the tunnel.
Even after the completion of the tunnel, however, there were limited prospects for the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line.
The tipping point came in November 2000.
A proposal by Hokkaido Railway Co. for the partial opening of the line to near the Hokkaido city of Hakodate, instead of the full route to Sapporo, gained the support of then-Hokkaido Gov. Tatsuya Hori, who reversed his previous calls for a full-scale opening.
The policy shift met with strong protests within Hokkaido. But Takahashi, who succeeded Hori in 2003, supported his decision.
In the belief that pressing for the complete line to Sapporo would cause further delays, Takahashi traveled across Hokkaido to win support from affected people, telling them the shinkansen line would certainly reach Sapporo someday.
In December 2014, a formal decision was made for the construction of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line between Shin-Aomori Station and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. A line extension will not reach Sapporo until fiscal 2030.
The fastest train on the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, to be operated by JR Hokkaido, will connect the two stations in one hour and one minute. East Japan Railway Co.’s Tohoku Shinkansen Line, which links Tokyo and Shin-Aomori, will be connected to the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, offering seamless travel between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in four hours and two minutes by the fastest train.
A total of 34 workers died during the construction of the 53.85-km Seikan Tunnel. And many others passed away before seeing a sophisticated high-speed train run on the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line.
“I want to tell my former colleagues that the shinkansen has become a reality,” Kadoya says.
On Saturday, he plans to wait for the arrival of the first shinkansen train on Hokkaido territory near the exit of the Seikan Tunnel in the town of Shiriuchi.