The idea of building a railway to climb Mount Fuji is not new, though it has never been realized. But now the leader of a local tourism group is pitching a plan to create an environmentally friendly rail line that he believes represents the best chance yet of seeing this long-held dream come true.
The 30-kilometer railway to the fifth station of Mount Fuji would help control the number of visitors to Japan’s iconic mountain, which struggles to cope with garbage and other environmental problems, said Koichiro Horiuchi, chairman of the Fujigoko Tourism Association and president of railroad operator Fuji Kyuko Co.
The railway would be built on an existing public road, Horiuchi said, so there would be almost no environmental destruction.
“Taking that into account, it would be very effective for environmental protection and is highly feasible,” he said.
Under his plan, rail would be laid along a tollway called the Fuji Subaru Line starting from Lake Kawaguchi, one of the Fuji Five Lakes, to Mount Fuji’s fifth station at an altitude of 2,305 meters. If the plan goes ahead, Horiuchi hopes to complete the railway by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.
The scenery en route is characterized by beautiful lakes and mountains, and four to five stations are planned along the route. The project is likely to cost around ¥100 billion, which would require the involvement of the state, Horiuchi said.
Horiuchi’s made the spotlight last year when Mount Fuji was designated a World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. But he has had the idea since Fuji Kyuko and Swiss railway Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn formed a partnership in 1991 to become sister railways, he said.
Since then, the railway has dispatched its employees to the Swiss railway to learn how the mountain railway was built and maintained.
Helmut Biner, head of markets and sales at Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, is supportive of the plan, saying that animals would be less disturbed and there would be less air pollution, helping to protect nature. He also believes it will contribute to the local economy as a train could be operated during winter, when roads are closed.
“Our company is giving Fuji Kyuko all help,” such as responding to questions about infrastructure, energy, marketing and environmental topics, Biner said.
Speaking about railways in Switzerland, Horiuchi said he was impressed by how they think about protecting the environment.
While in Japan, building a railway is often thought of as destroying the environment, in Europe, “They have a wonderful concept of letting people enjoy and learn about nature’s greatness with a minimum amount of capital investment,” Horiuchi said.
For example, Jungfrau Railway, which takes passengers to the highest railway station in Europe, Jungfraujoch, at an altitude of 3,454 meters, uses eco-friendly technology to accommodate visitors.
The technology includes a water-processing system that uses melting ice and snow on surrounding mountains as well as a heating system that derives energy from solar power.
While the Jungfraujoch station is equipped with five restaurants serving dishes such as curry and steak, the railway takes extra care over waste disposal by strictly sorting, compressing and carrying garbage to a village below the mountain via the railway.
Relationships between railway companies have been part of diplomatic ties between Japan and Switzerland dating back 150 years. In 1912, Mitsugu Handa, an engineer at the predecessor of Hakone Tozan Railway Co., visited Bernina Railway, now a part of Rhaetian Railway in Switzerland, to learn about mountain railways.
Seven years later, Japan’s first mountain railway opened, an 8.9-kilometer route up a mountain in the town of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture. The railway uses the so-called switchback method, where the driver and the conductor change ends each time the train reverses direction as it zigzags up and down the mountain.
To construct the railway, the company laid tracks in a way that does not interfere with the landscape, said Akihiko Ito, general manager at Hakone Tozan Railway.
“Our efforts not to destroy nature, such as refraining from building bridges as much as possible, partly reflect the practices introduced by Swiss railways,” Ito said.
Cooperation is not limited to mountain railways. East Japan Railway Co. and Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB, started a personnel exchange program several years ago to learn about each other’s operations, as they have found a number of similarities in their services, according to JR East.
“Passengers in both Japan and Switzerland travel long distance using trains,” said JR East spokesman Takumi Homma. “JR East and Swiss Federal Railways both provide intercity routes, commuting lines and cargo transport, placing importance on on-time performances and convenience in connections.”
SBB spokeswoman Lea Meyer said the company gained “inspiration in various areas” including the acquisition of trains, maintenance and real estate, adding it started several pilot projects that have been implemented in Japan, including speeding up the flow of passengers while getting in and out the trains.
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