The long-awaited Tsukuba Express line, which will cross through Saitama and Chiba prefectures to connect Tokyo’s Akihabara district with Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, will begin operations Aug. 24 amid high — and low — expectations.

Covering a northeastern part of greater Tokyo that has long been void of a rail network, the new Metropolitan Intercity Railway Co. link will allow passengers to make the 58.3-km trip in 45 minutes on a rapid-service train for 1,150 yen.

This compares with 65 minutes by expressway bus from JR Tokyo Station for 1,250 yen, and 73 minutes from Akihabara via the JR Joban Line and bus for a combined 1,550 yen.

“I plan to switch to the Tsukuba Express to go to work,” said Takayasu Murakoshi, a 39-year-old worker who spends 70 minutes traveling from JR Minaminagareyama Station in Chiba Prefecture to JR Suidobashi Station in Bunkyo Ward. “Taking it will shorten the commute by 20 minutes.”

East Japan Railway Co. expects the Joban Line — which runs almost parallel to the Tsukuba Express from Ueno to Tsuchiura in Ibaraki Prefecture — to lose 100,000 daily passengers to the new line, which will cost it 12 billion yen in annual revenue.

In response, JR East added more limited express and rapid-service trains to the Joban Line.

Despite the potential of the Tsukuba Express, however, demand threatens to be less than what was expected when the ambitious project was launched.

“Japan was in the midst of the bubble economy when the government gave the go-ahead,” railway expert Ryozo Kawashima said, noting the gap between the original plan and what has become reality two decades later.

The Tsukuba Express project was submitted to the central government in 1985 with the aim of creating a new satellite community in the Kanto region, establishing a new transportation network, and easing congestion on the Joban Line.

It was officially approved in 1992; construction began in 1994.

Kawashima said growth in housing demand along the route has not met government expectations, while the declining birthrate is putting the brakes on overall population growth.

A transport ministry panel recently acknowledged that the business outlook for Metropolitan Intercity Railway is dim because of slow development.

It urged the government to encourage municipalities to speed up the process to boost passenger demand.

The grim prospects have forced MIR to lower its daily passenger projections after the first five years in business to 270,000 from 380,000.

Many municipalities along the route, however, have high expectations for the new service.

Of the 20 stations to be served by the Tsukuba Express, 13 are new, including Yashio Station in southern Saitama Prefecture — a dream come true for the city, which has been the only major Saitama municipality without a railway station.

Yashio residents mostly commute by bus.

However, it takes 20 to 30 minutes at best to get to neighboring train stations, including Soka Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line and Ayase Station on the Joban Line.

To make matters worse, the buses only run at 15- to 20-minute intervals on average.

Because of its lack of a rail system, Yashio had been called a “rikuno koto” (isolated land), municipal official Tetsuo Takagi said.

“With the opening (of the Tsukuba Express), we will finally achieve our long-held desire,” Takagi said.

The Tsukuba Express debut is being coupled with development of large-scale residential and commercial complexes.

Ibaraki hopes to attract 100,000 people to new residential areas along the line.

Development, however, is not proceeding as planned. According to the prefecture, only 27 hectares, or 3 percent, of the roughly 900 hectares secured for the project have so far found developers.

MIR has been making every effort to promote the Tsukuba Express by organizing various preopening events, including station tours and test rides.

It is also reaching out to foreigners in the belief that certain Tokyo districts, including the electronics mecca Akihabara and Asakusa, a popular sightseeing spot, can be strong draws.

On the other end of the line, some 7,000 foreign students and researchers live in the major research and academic hub of Tsukuba.

To attract potential residents in the postbubble world, Ibaraki and the Urban Renaissance Agency, an independent administrative institution, have revamped their joint strategy and are touting spaciousness and lots of nature as merits of the new line.

“These areas were initially regarded as places to supply mass housing,” said Masato Katsumata, an official of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry’s Land and Water Bureau. “But to cope with the changing times, developers had to come up with new residential concepts.”

Railway critic Kawashima believes improvements are needed in both the rail system and the housing projects if the new line is to be profitable.

“Rapid-service trains (making the Akihabara-Tsukuba run will) only come at 30-minute intervals (even during peak hours). Their number should be increased” to boost convenience, Kawashima said. “The current development concepts are nothing but platitudes. The developers should come up with more unique concepts that make people want to live there.”

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