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Hitachinaka Seaside Railway Co., a local railway in Ibaraki Prefecture, has won transport ministry approval for an extension — an unusual move in Japan, where many small railways are struggling.

Hitachinaka Seaside Railway, a public-private joint business in the city of Hitachinaka, won the approval to build a 3.1-kilometer extension that will connect its Ajigaura Station to Hitachi Seaside Park.

The ministry has concluded that the extension to give better access to the park, which usually draws 2 million visitors annually, would be feasible.

The extension “will make it easier to maintain the means of transportation essential to daily life and make the local area more active,” said Chiaki Yoshida, head of Hitachinaka Seaside Railway.

The company runs a 14.3-kilometer line between Ajigaura and Katsuta Station, which is shared with the Joban Line of East Japan Railway Co., or JR East.

All 11 stations on Hitachinaka Seaside Railway’s existing line are located in the city, as is Hitachi Seaside Park.

Construction work to build the extension with two new stations will start in fiscal 2022. The extended section is expected to open as early as 2024.

The park is popular for nemophila, a plant with blue flowers also known as baby blue eyes. Each summer, one of the biggest music events in Japan is held there.

The number of park visitors in fiscal 2020 was low at 840,000 due to the novel coronavirus crisis. But the park attracted more than 2 million visitors in each of fiscal 2015 to 2019.

The company operates free shuttle buses between Ajigaura and the park in busy periods.

“If 200,000 people, or 10% of the total visitors, newly ride our trains, we can expect additional revenue of ¥200 million per year,” said Yoshida, 56.

Transport ministry data show that 74 of Japan’s 95 small local railway companies incurred ordinary losses in fiscal 2019 as passengers decreased and maintenance costs were heavy. The coronavirus pandemic is dealing an additional blow.

Since fiscal 2000, 45 train lines, including some operated by JR companies, have stopped operating.

Hitachinaka Seaside Railway, launched in 2008 to take over the struggling local line, managed to achieve passenger number growth, hitting a record high of 1.06 million in fiscal 2019.

But in fiscal 2020, the number is believed to have fallen back due to the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s necessary to protect the daily means of transportation even if passengers decrease,” Yoshida said.

“The extension will make it unlikely for the time being that our railway line will be abolished,” Yoshida said. “We’ll go ahead to realize the extension.”

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