Efforts afoot to turn abandoned rural train lines into tourist attractions

Kyodo

Abandoned rail lines once serving as lifelines for local industry are recapturing attention as tourist attractions.

Last month, 15 groups from 12 prefectures inaugurated an association of regional promoters hoping that their railway legacies will attract visitors and help revitalize their aging rural communities. Still, financing and safety issues abound.

Shingo Suzuki, who chairs a nonprofit group in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, played a key role in creating the group following a bout of success in his own hometown.

The old town of Kamioka, now part of the city of Hida, developed as the base for a mine that was discovered in the eighth century and flourished as one of the largest production sites in East Asia for zinc and lead ore.

Freight trains transporting sulfuric acid on the Kamioka Railway were the symbol of the town for decades, including the period of Japan’s rapid economic growth. After the train service was discontinued in 2006, Suzuki came up with the idea of keeping the tracks alive.

“Using railways is one of the few effective ways you can find to boost local economies where populations keep declining,” Suzuki said.

The idea led to a “mountain rail bike” tour, which allows visitors to travel on part of the abandoned Kamioka Railway using mountain bikes fastened together and specially adapted to ride along the rails.

The largely experimental event began in 2007 and proved an instant hit. It has now grown to attract more than 40,000 people a year, earning Kamioka a reputation as a highly successful model for local revitalization.

On April 8, train lovers from across the country visited the site for a one-day revival of an old diesel passenger car, which ran for the first time since the Kamioka Railway terminated its service.

The 20-km line was opened in 1966 by the state-run Japanese National Railways before a local operator took over in 1984. Its primary purpose was transporting sulfuric acid from the mining area. Roughly 80 percent of the line’s revenue came from freight, although passenger service was provided as well.

Trains continued running even after the mine was shut down in 2001, but a full shift to transporting sulfuric acid by truck in 2004 eventually triggered the termination of the railway operation.

Currently, the Hida Municipal Government owns the rails and cars while Suzuki’s NPO is assigned maintenance work such as replacement of railway ties. The local government is responsible for large-scale repairs of railway facilities.

“The mayor is very cooperative with us and has shown understanding for the use of the rails,” Suzuki said. “Our project will come to nothing without such positive support from authorities.”

The town of Misaki, Okayama Prefecture, the only public entity among the new association’s members, offers another example of collaboration between the public sector and a citizens’ group in utilizing a discontinued rail line.

The town provides support to a voluntary group of avid rail fans who aim to keep train cars and a locomotive used by the Katakami Railway in working condition. The railway was abolished in 1991 after nearly 70 years of freight and passenger service.

The group carries out train operations once a month on demonstration tracks set up in a memorial park for a nearby pyrite mine, which also was shut down in 1991.

The Misaki Municipal Government owns most of the preserved rolling stock and provides fuel.

In 2014, the town extended the demonstration line by about 130 meters and built a new station at one end of the tracks, which now stretch nearly 500 meters in total, according to the group’s website.

“These railway facilities are a valuable tourism asset for the entire town and we would like to continue cooperation (with the group) as much as possible,” said Masashi Kawashima, a senior official in Misaki’s tourism section.

But not all such railway-inspired efforts have progressed as fortunately as these, nor do they have bright prospects.

The Takachiho Railway in Miyazaki Prefecture was forced to be discontinued after flooding from a typhoon swept away two of its bridges in 2005.

The company that took over the railway’s management after the disaster currently offers visitors sightseeing rides on the deserted tracks by using carts converted from small trucks.

Concerned about safety, the town of Takachiho was reluctant to give permission for the new service in the early stages of negotiations with the head of the operator, Fumihiko Takayama.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if authorities abruptly decided to remove the rails. It would be a huge blow to us if a disaster strikes again and severely damages the railroad,” said Takayama, who hails from Takachiho and is also a nonfiction writer.

Enjoying scenic countryside views from abandoned tracks often accompanies the thrill of running on challenging rural terrain, often interspersed with tunnels and bridges.

But this also means operators are faced with constant safety and maintenance headaches.

Masayuki Odanagi, who runs a rail bike business in Akita Prefecture, said it alarmed him to see children bumping each other’s rail bikes on the tracks.

“What’s important is to carry out proper customer guidance and thorough facility checks, and hopefully the levels of awareness and attention regarding safety issues will be raised through the new association,” Odanagi said.