Kumamoto railway struggles to rebuild after devastating 2016 quake

JIJI

A railway in Kumamoto Prefecture is working hard to win back passengers 16 months after a series of powerful earthquakes rocked the area.

Minamiaso Railway Co., a public-private third-sector firm, has still been unable to resume full operation of its services along the 17.7-km-long line.

“We hope people will come and enjoy a beautiful summer in the Aso region,” a company official said.

Operations of the railway, which links Takamori Station in the town of Takamori and Tateno Station in the village of Minamiaso, both in the prefecture, were suspended soon after the April 2016 quakes because some of the tracks were carried away by landslides triggered by the temblors.

The 7.1-km section between Takamori Station and Nakamatsu Station went back into service about three months after the earthquakes. But the remaining 10.6-km section between Nakamatsu and Tateno stations remains cut off.

The carrier is hoping to put the full line back into operation as soon as possible. But it will take at least five years, officials said.

Currently, three daily round-trip services are offered on the Takamori-Nakamatsu section on weekdays and four on weekends and public holidays.

The railway, the former Takamori Line of the now-defunct Japanese National Railways, went into service in 1986. Five municipalities in the prefecture, including Takamori and Minamiaso, are investors in Minamiaso Railway.

The number of passengers on the railway plummeted to 40,000 in fiscal 2016 from 260,000 the previous year, mainly because Tateno Station, which offers a link to the Hohi Main Line of Kyushu Railway Co., remains closed.

Before the quakes, many visitors, including those from the city of Kumamoto, transferred to the Minamiaso Railway line from the JR Kyushu line at Tateno Station.

The local railway fell into the red in fiscal 2016, with its transport business revenue plunging to a seventh of the level before the quakes.

“The earthquakes struck just as the number of passengers from abroad was increasing,” said Ryuichi Nakagawa, head of Minamiaso Railway’s administrative department.

The red ink in fiscal 2016 was small thanks to donations from across Japan, but the company’s business has been tough in fiscal 2017, he said.

Amid the financial troubles, the railway cut its staff to eight employees from 15.

To attract public attention and lure back passengers, the company is taking various measures, including launching a train decorated with popular cartoon characters such as Doraemon in cooperation with publishing firms and selling the right to reserve an entire train in online auctions.

Also as part of revival efforts, Minamiaso Railway is selling sets of picture postcards and ekiben (boxed station meals) jointly prepared by university students and local restaurants.

According to Nakagawa, up to 300 people used the railway per day on holidays this summer. This figure is far lower than the daily average of 700 passengers in July-August 2015.

During the summer vacation season, passengers can enjoy magnificent views of nature from a tramcar operated on the line. Blueberry picking and other leisure activities are available along the line.

“Enjoy the views of beautiful nature from the train and sightseeing along the line,” Nakagawa said.