SAPPORO – The first shinkansen bullet train line directly linking Hokkaido with Honshu officially opened Saturday, promising faster travel times between cities on the two islands and introducing slick new cars.
The Hayate 91 was the first scheduled train to run on a section of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, leaving Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture for Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto terminal in Hokkaido at 6:32 a.m.
It was followed by the Hayabusa 10, which left from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto at 6:35 a.m., traveling in the opposite direction, where it arrived at Tokyo Station shortly after 11 a.m.
According to operators Hokkaido Railway Co. and East Japan Railway Co., the high-speed trains running on their two lines between Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and the capital will take as little as four hours and two minutes.
This cuts the current shortest travel time from the port city of Hakodate to Tokyo by 53 minutes when including a commute on a local line needed to get from Hakodate Station to the shinkansen terminal.
The Hakodate Liner local train can shuttle passengers between Hakodate and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations in as little as 15 minutes.
Travel from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Shin-Aomori is now just a 61 minute ride. Other major stops on the combined line include Morioka in Iwate, now just a one hour and 50 minute trip from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, and Sendai, a two hour and 30 minutes ride.
The train uses the undersea Seikan Tunnel linking Hokkaido with Aomori. The tunnel opened in 1988 and until recently was used by overnight train services. The line through the tunnel is also shared with local trains.
Hiroyuki Sato, 52, who traveled with his family on the first train from Tokyo to see relatives in Hokkaido, said, “We have been using planes until now, but we want to use the shinkansen frequently because travel is more enjoyable” on a train.
The first high-speed trains arrived at their destinations on time.
Takuro Yamazaki, 31, who rode the first shinkansen from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto with his wife and son, liked the comfort of the new train.
“The ride was quieter than the local train even when running through the Seikan Tunnel,” he said.
Some of the services on the just-opened shinkansen line will use new JR Hokkaido H-5 rolling stock in regular cars that feature a purple-striped exterior and snowflake-patterned flooring, the operators said.
A total of 32 trains ran in both directions Saturday, including specialized trains.
Last month, tickets for the first Tokyo-bound service from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto sold out in 25 seconds, while tickets for the first service going in the opposite direction were snapped up in 30 seconds, according to JR Hokkaido and JR East.
Ahead of Saturday’s launch, Hokkaido Railway President Osamu Shimada said in an interview that the company hopes to attract users to the new bullet train service by facilitating increased exchanges between people in Hokkaido with people in the Tohoku region.
He said the company also expects to see a pick up in demand from overseas tourists.
“I hear that foreign visitors wish to travel on Japan’s shinkansen trains,” he said.
Shimada was involved in the abolition of ferry services connecting Hokkaido with Honshu in line with the 1988 opening of the Seikan Tunnel.
While discussing the difficulties encountered during construction, Shimada pointed out that special methods were required to build a rail line that could be shared by both shinkansen trains and ordinary freight and passenger trains.
He also stressed that safety was a priority, noting the company painstakingly tested equipment that will be used in the event of an evacuation.
“We have made a great effort to create a corporate culture that puts the priority on safety,” said Shimada, who took up his post two years ago following a series of safety scandals at JR Hokkaido. “The (era of) safety awareness has arrived.”