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It has been five years since the Hokkaido Shinkansen began operations, but business is struggling, partly due to high prices compared with airlines, ferries and other shinkansen operators.

For example, airlines offer early purchase discounts, and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) offers a variety of discounts to attract business travelers. Ferry companies are also providing special services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With its financial difficulties in mind, there is the question of whether Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido), the operator of the shinkansen line, can offer better services and discounts to survive.

“I’ve never taken the bullet train to go home because I want to take the cheaper route,” said Ryunosuke Mori, 20, a second-year student at Hokkaido University of Education in Hakodate, referring to the ferry.

A native of Aomori Prefecture, Mori takes the ferry every time he returns home. With student discount, the fare is only about ¥2,000 each way, while the regular fare for the shinkansen is more than triple the ferry price, at ¥7,000.

Mori is also considering job hunting in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which will require him to frequently visit Tokyo for interviews. But given the cost, the bullet train will be the last choice for Mori.

“I will probably use air travel to reduce transportation costs as much as possible,” he said.

While it costs ¥23,760 for the Tokyo-Hakodate route by shinkansen, flights are often cheaper due to early purchase discounts, which are available up to 75 days in advance.

Even compared with other shinkansen lines, the fare of Hokkaido Shinkansen stands out.

Fares for the Hakodate-Tokyo route, an 880.4-kilometer stretch including local lines, are 20% higher than that of the similarly long Tokyo-Hiroshima route, an 894.2-km journey that costs ¥19,440.

This is partly because the Hakodate-Tokyo fare includes a contribution to maintaining and upgrading the Seikan Tunnel, which links Aomori Prefecture to Hokkaido under the sea. Although the price of an express fare generally rises more moderately as the distance gets longer, when a train switches from an East Japan Railway line to a JR Hokkaido line, the distance calculation is reset at Shin-Aomori Station, making it more expensive.

Other shinkansen lines are also promoting their own campaigns, offering affordable fares.

JR Central and West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) have introduced an annual membership costing ¥1,100 that gives a discount of ¥1,450 for same-day purchases, as well as weekday-only discounts and other discount services for business travelers.

“We have been pushing same-day passes, which are very convenient. Online reservations are particularly popular among business travelers,” an official at JR West said.

Ferries, meanwhile, are an affordable option for travelers between Hakodate and Aomori, serving as a cheaper alternative to shinkansen.

Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry introduced a plan in November last year to offer private rooms at a discount for passengers traveling with their cars. The plan has become so popular amid the COVID-19 pandemic that the company has extended it to March 2022.

Seikan Ferry Co., meanwhile, began to offer online reservations in spring of last year, with the cheapest price set at ¥1,300 per person, in an effort to attract more customers.

It’s an uphill battle for JR Hokkaido. The shinkansen operator is also offering discounted tickets, such as half-price tickets for some sections only available for online reservations. But some officials in the Hakodate business community are calling for a more flexible discount system.

In February, JR Hokkaido also shut down a physical ticket office at Hakodate Station, which made it inconvenient for older people who are not familiar with making reservations online.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published March 19.

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