New bullet train lines near green light

Prefectural haggling may delay 1.16 trillion yen three-way shinkansen project

Prospects look good for a ruling coalition proposal to begin constructing three shinkansen lines in fiscal 2005.

But in two cases, the candidate terminal prefectures — Hokkaido and Aomori, and Saga and Nagasaki — disagree with how the plans will be carried out.

The working group, consisting of government officials and lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, are expected to finalize the construction plans by the end of the year, in time for inclusion in next year’s budget, official sources said.

In June, the ruling bloc presented the government with a proposal to begin construction of three bullet-train lines in fiscal 2005 — between Shin-Aomori in Aomori Prefecture and Shin-Hakodate in Hokkaido; between Toyama and Kanazwa, Ishikawa Prefecture; and between Takeo hot springs in Saga Prefecture and Isahaya in Nagasaki Prefecture — at a total cost of about 1.16 trillion yen.

On Oct. 15, Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi, who strongly advocates a new bullet-train line, visited the Seikan Tunnel accompanied by 80 people, including reporters.

The 53.8 km-long tunnel, 23 km of which runs under the Tsugaru Strait to link the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, includes a regular rail line.

At Yoshioka Kaitei Station, a point in the tunnel 140 meters below the surface of the sea and technically in the town of Fukushima, Hokkaido, Takahashi said: “The Seikan Tunnel was built over a period of 24 years with a huge cost of 700 billion yen and the deaths of more than 30 people. I want to return (the tunnel) to its original purpose — for bullet trains.”

Her visit was an appeal to the central government to build the bullet-train line.

But Aomori Prefecture is concerned about who will pay for construction costs.

Before visiting the tunnel, Takahashi met with Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura at his city office to ask for cooperation in the project.

“Let’s fight together,” Mimura said, but stopped short of making a clear statement of support.

The Tohoku Shinkansen Line extension between Hachinohe and Shin-Aomori, both in Aomori Prefecture, is expected to be completed in fiscal 2012 at a total cost of about 460 billion yen, about 150 billion yen of which is being paid by the prefecture.

The prefecture will have to pay an additional 80 billion yen or so if the line between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate in Hokkaido is to be built.

Mimura said the state and the Japan Railway group should bear an appropriate share of the cost to make the tunnel ready for bullet trains.

Mimura is cautious about committing to the project because of fears that extending a line to Hakodate would take away his prefecture’s benefits of having a terminal station, which brings increased tourism to the region, local sources said.

Takahashi said after her Seikan Tunnel visit, “It is natural for the people of Aomori Prefecture to wish to have (their prefecture) as a terminal” destination.

For Saga Prefecture, where a bullet-train line is planned between Takeo hot springs and Isahaya on the Nagasaki route, the issue is that a shinkansen line would run alongside an existing commuter line.

Nagasaki Prefecture is eager for the new line because it would help attract more tourists.

A Saga prefectural official said: “It is about 30 minutes or so to Hakata by limited express. The continuation of that line is a condition for the construction of a new bullet train line.”

Another Saga official said the new line will generate little profit, but the prefecture is being asked to pay about 34 billion yen of its construction costs.

A senior Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry official said that if the disagreements are not resolved, the construction of bullet train lines in northern and southwestern Japan might be postponed and only the line in central Japan will be built.

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