Railways are an important part of the infrastructure that was heavily damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Although major railway lines of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), such as the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and the Tohoku Line, have resumed operations, local railway lines have not fully recovered.
The central government needs to make efforts to quickly restore services on these lines because they are important means of traffic for local residents. Otherwise, people may increase their reliance on cars, thus weakening the financial basis for continued train operations.
Among the railway lines in the Tohoku region operated by JR East, train runs have not been resumed on 344 km of sections on seven lines including the Hachinohe and Yamada lines. JR East estimates that if the damaged facilities are rebuilt in their previous locations, it would cost some ¥100 billion.
In some other areas, there are strong calls for moving railways to inland or highland areas so that they will not be hit by future tsunami. If JR East is to meet this demand, costs would increase further.
The railway tracks improvement law stipulates that in case railways are damaged by natural disasters, railway companies will shoulder half of the costs of their restoration while the central government will pay for a quarter of the costs and local government another quarter of the costs.
But this provision does not apply to a railway company in the black like JR East. If JR East moves stations and railway tracks to new locations, rising costs are inevitable because it will have to purchase new lots of land.
The central government should consider ways to financially help JR East with its effort to rebuild damaged railways and related facilities. Apart from JR East, third-sector railway companies are running trains in the Tohoku region.
In 1984, Sanriku Railway Co., headquartered in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, was established as the nation’s first third-sector railway company. It has two lines in Iwate Prefecture — the 71-km-long Kita Riasu (Northern Rias) Line, linking Miyako with Kuji, and the 36.6-km-long Minami Riasu (Southern Rias) Line, linking Kamaishi with Sakari. The Iwate prefectural government, municipalities along the Pacific coast and local banks have invested in the railway company.
In the March 11 disasters, the two lines suffered damage at some 300 spots, including damage to station buildings and railway bridge piers. The tsunami washed away some 5.8 km of the railway tracks.
Trains are now out of service on some 71 km of sections of the two railway lines although train runs were resumed in a slightly less than 40 km section of the Kita Riasu Line in less than 10 days after the March 11 disasters. In sections where signals became dysfunctional, railway workers are using flags for safe operation of trains.
In its shareholders meeting held on July 15, Sanriku Railway announced a plan to restore the 71-km sections in phases and to eventually resume train operations on all the sections by April 2014. The restoration work will proceed in three stages, depending on the degree of damage.
Sections with the lightest damage will be restored by April 2012 and the sections with the heaviest damage, in which stations and railway bridges were washed away, will be restored by April 2014.
The railway routes will not be changed. But to increase the resilience of the railway lines, the raised ground for railway tracks will be further built up and the slope will be encased in a layer of concrete.
This is a reasonable approach because in some areas, elevated ground helped to minimize damage to urban areas from the tsunami. It will take some ¥11 billion to carry out Sanriku Railway’s plan. This is a large sum for a company that suffered a current account deficit of some ¥150 million in fiscal 2010, its 17th consecutive year of losses.
In the same fiscal year, which ended on March 31, the number of passengers declined about 30,000 to some 850,000, due to the March 11 disasters.
As the company says, it needs full support from the central government. The latter should quickly go ahead with a plan to raise its portion in the outlays for repairs of railways damaged by natural disasters to three quarters by changing the government ordinance for the implementation of the railway tracks improvement law.
The ¥1.998 trillion second supplementary budget for fiscal 2011, which was passed on July 25, includes ¥800 billion for reconstruction of the Tohoku region.
But the ¥800 billion does not include outlays for restoration of damaged railways. The central government should use an emergency fund in the restoration budget to help third-sector railway companies in the Tohoku region.
It is clear that railways will play an important part in the reconstruction of the region. JR East can play a role in building prosperous communities resilient to disasters by carefully choosing new routes for its railway lines and the location of new stations.
The central government should also push a long-term project of promoting public transportation, such as buses, railways and light rail transit, in the Tohoku region.