National

Train buffs join forces online to save Japan's fading railway assets

Kyodo

Railroad enthusiasts across Japan are pooling resources, making financial contributions via the internet to preserve abandoned rail facilities and support financially struggling local railways.

Some of these sites have turned into tourist destinations where railway buffs gather for exchange events, with locals hoping the trend will help revitalize regional economies.

A human-powered railway turntable can still be found in the town of Shibetsu at the former Nemuroshibetsu terminal station of Hokkaido Railway Co.’s Shibetsu Line, which was scrapped in 1989, and a C11-type steam locomotive is on display near a community center several hundred meters away from the site. Both the railway turntable and the steam engine showed signs of decay due to aging. Last year a local construction company and others launched a society to preserve the turntable, aimed at creating new tourist attractions that include the device and rolling stock.

“It became popular among children and we started” to see some of them come to the events many times, said Shizuo Shinoda, 65, who heads the preservation society.

The society has raised money through crowdfunding to cover part of the ¥8 million ($71,000) expense for tasks such as hoisting the locomotive onto the railway turntable, which is about 14 meters in diameter, using a crane in order to remove rust. In June and July last year, around ¥1.11 million was collected and used for preservation activities.

The society has held various events, such as manually turning the turntable with the steam locomotive on top, and some 100 railroad fans participated in an Oct. 7 event during which they enjoyed a tour of the vehicle.

Koichi Wada, a 66-year-old resident of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, made a financial contribution to the society and visited the town with his family. “I felt their enthusiasm. I would like to support their activities that utilize their local heritage,” Wada said after spending time with Shinoda and others.

Elsewhere, Kyushu Railway Co. is moving forward with a plan to remodel the stationmaster’s former lodgings at Yatake Station in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. The time-honored building on the Hisatsu Line was built in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). As of October, the operator of the facility had collected about ¥3 million via crowdfunding to cover part of the refurbishment costs. Through the recently growing trend of railroad preservation and supporting struggling local railways, crowdfunding appears to be the method of choice for raising funds.

In Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, students of Choshi Commercial Senior High School collected nearly ¥5 million in 2014 to aid the repair of Choshi Electric Railway Co. train carriages. Other examples of crowdfunding include efforts by Shinano Railway Co. in Nagano Prefecture, and Yuri Kogen Railway in Akita Prefecture.

According to Japanese crowdfunding platform Readyfor Inc. there have been about 50 railway-related projects since 2011. One was focused on preserving compartment coaches from the limited express sleeper train Hokutosei, which had linked Tokyo’s Ueno Station and Hokkaido’s Sapporo Station until ending its service in 2015.

“Many people seem to be interested in visible efforts, like the maintenance and preservation of train cars and station buildings,” said a Readyfor official regarding the trend. “(The projects) also provide financial contributors an opportunity to visit related sites as tourists,” they added.