Hopes high for Hokkaido bullet train

by Takaki Tominaga


The port city of Hakodate and surrounding areas in southern Hokkaido are abuzz ahead of next month’s start of a shinkansen line that is expected to drastically cut transportation time and give a boost to local industries and other areas in Japan.

Although the overall mood has been upbeat for the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line — construction of which began in 2005 — concerns have surfaced over ticket prices and whether it is fast enough to be competitive.

On a drizzly weekend afternoon this month, shoppers, including many foreign tourists, strolled about the famous Hakodate Asaichi (Morning Market), which sells an array of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables near JR Hakodate Station.

With the line’s opening right around the corner, shops inside the market looked forward to the expected influx of customers.

“Some of our customers have said they would like to visit our store more frequently once the shinkansen line opens,” said Tatsuhiko Sakuraba, 68, an employee of Maruyama Shoten who was grilling whelk outside his shop. “Hopefully, there will be enough hotel rooms and facilities to accommodate more visitors.”

The initial bullet train service scheduled to start March 26 between Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokkaido, covering about 148 km, will take about an hour using the undersea Seikan Tunnel — cutting about 50 minutes off the conventional rail service.

A shuttle service that takes about 15 minutes between Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Hakodate will begin on the same date.

Construction on the remaining leg, which will extend for about 211 km from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo, is planned to start at the end of fiscal 2030.

All told, the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line will span 360 km, linking Shin-Aomori Station with Sapporo.

The biggest bonus from the initial stage: a drop in travel time between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on the fastest services to 4 hours, 2 minutes, according to Hokkaido Railway Co., primary operator of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line.

The fastest train, the Hayabusa, will make 10 round trips per day between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, and one trip between Sendai and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto.

The Hayate train will make one trip between Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, as well as another between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto as part of the Hokkaido shinkansen service.

Currently the fastest time between Tokyo and Hakodate is about 5 hours, 30 minutes via Shin-Aomori on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and a limited express train.

Earlier in the day, 546 invited people flocked to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokuto, north of Hakodate, to participate in a round trip test run of the bullet train to Kikonai Station, about 35.5 km to the southwest, at the north end of the Seikan Tunnel.

“We were so happy that we beat the odds and won the lottery for this test ride,” said Ryo Sugawara, 40, who works in the sales division of a wholesaler in Hakodate.

“Once the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line starts operating in March, I want to visit Sendai,” said Sugawara, whose wife, Yuki, 36, eldest son, Shogo, 5, and twin boys Haruto and Kosuke, 2, also participated. The bullet train will make that run in about 2½ hours.

“I hope many people will travel to Hakodate because that will help boost my business, too,” he said.

Many of the passengers, seen off by a waving throng of Hokkaido Railway employees, returned to the station with smiles.

“It was a really smooth and quiet ride and I could not believe it was running at bullet train speed,” said Eri Watanabe from Sapporo, who rode the train with her son and his grandparents. “It was so cool and awesome,” her 8-year-old son Kodai said.

While Hokkaido residents are excited to get more transport options, businesses in southern Hokkaido hope to bolster ties with other cities in Japan.

Exhibition booths were set up inside Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station to promote local products during the test run.

“I hope we can expand the market for our products after the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line,” said Shohei Miyakawa, president of Hinode Seimen Co., which manufactures noodles in Hokuto.

His company’s Hakodate Shijimi Ramen is a collaboration with the Tohoku region as it contains clam extract produced in Aomori Prefecture.

Miyakawa believes alliances of this sort, especially with companies in such Tohoku hubs as Sendai, will advance further with the opening of the bullet train service.

According to a report released in October 2014 by the Development Bank of Japan, the estimated economic ripple effect from the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line’s opening will be around ¥13.6 billion per year in Hokkaido.

Not everyone, however, is celebrating just yet.

Hiroki Nagasawa, section chief at the Hakodate Chamber of Commerce and Industry in charge of measures for promoting the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, criticized the high ticket prices and relatively slow speeds as among the issues that need to be addressed to make the new line a viable public service.

The price of an adult regular reserved one-way ticket between Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Tokyo is ¥22,690, according to Hokkaido Railway.

“Whether or not you can best utilize the shinkansen service really depends on the ticket price,” said Nagasawa. “If ticket prices are more reasonable, we believe the number of passengers will increase, and it will lead to an increase in the number of services.”

Although the Hokkaido shinkansen was designed for a maximum speed of 260 kph, it will initially be limited to 140 kph on a designated 82-km section due to safety concerns, including the risk of affecting rail freight operations traveling the opposite direction inside the Seikan Tunnel.

Concerns have been voiced that this move will reduce the competitive edge of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line.

“A priority task after the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line is to achieve the level of service that can produce benefits in relation to costs for residents and companies,” Nagasawa said.