It was just after the Sanko Line marked its 40th anniversary when West Japan Railway Co. informed Kazutoshi Masuda, mayor of Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture, that it would seek a more “sustainable” public transportation system.
“I knew it meant that the Sanko Line would be scrapped,” the mayor recalled.
As rural communities become increasingly depopulated, railways are scrapping unprofitable lines, forcing municipalities to switch to cheaper public transportation, such as buses.
The city of Miyoshi and five other municipalities in Hiroshima and Shimane prefectures have been busy mapping out future bus routes in preparation for the demise of the loss-making line next year.
West Japan Railway, better known as JR West, told Miyoshi and other municipalities about its plans in 2015 to terminate the line, which runs 108 km through mountainous terrain between the inland city and Gotsu, Shimane Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast.
According to the railway, the Sanko Line carried 458 passengers per kilometer daily in fiscal 1987. But that had fallen to 50 passengers per kilometer by fiscal 2014, leading to an annual net loss of ¥900 million.
If the public sector decided to take over, ¥4 billion in initial expenses would be required along with ¥870 million in annual running costs. But if the line closed and buses became the primary mode of transportation, the initial expenses could drop to ¥930 million and the running costs to ¥310 million, even with an increase in bus runs of just 60 percent. These estimates prompted the local communities to give up on the line.
JR West conducts only five runs per day on the Sanko Line. Each train has one or two cars and the main passengers are students and seniors.
“Local communities won’t be able to survive if no measure is taken now,” Masuda warned, referring to the continuing depopulation and rise in automobiles.
“I wonder if the train operator could maintain lines in rural areas by tapping profits that are generated in urban areas,” Masuda said.
The Sanko Line is not alone in facing crisis.
The operators of 39 other train lines with a combined 770 km of track have suspended operations since fiscal 2000.
The city of Gifu, however, is a trailblazer in the drastic transportation reform.
The city had a crisis over its public transportation system in 2005, when Nagoya Railroad Co. stopped operating streetcars and the municipal bus system was handed over to the private sector.
The city has since worked hard to improve the bus network by installing new infrastructure, including special bus lanes and advanced signals. Residents took part in the decision-making process for both the routes and the number of community buses to use.
“As a result, the number of passengers has been on an upward trend since fiscal 2008,” a Gifu official said, adding that annual ridership has stayed above 170,000 in recent years.
“It helps the bus operator compile business plans,” the city official said.
Many municipalities have tried their hand at running bus systems while fighting the snowballing deficits generated by the business. But that is not the case in Gifu, the official said.
Gifu has set a subsidy cap of ¥10 million per district and residents are involved in setting the fares.
“That makes residents aware that they are part of the bus operation and even feel attached to it. And they actually take the buses.”
With the bus system becoming more popular, the operator has had difficulty finding drivers, the official said, noting that it is adding more two-car buses so one driver can transport more passengers.