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Passenger service operators of the Japan Railways Group are starting to use shinkansen for freight to make up for falls in revenue resulting from plunging demand for traveler transport amid the COVID-19 crisis.

In one example, packages of perishable food, such as fish and vegetables, were unloaded from a shinkansen that arrived at Shin-Osaka Station on Feb. 26 and reloaded on a conventional train for final destinations including Hotel Granvia Osaka. The shinkansen came from Kagoshima-chuo Station in Kagoshima Prefecture.

“We can offer meals using fresh produce from the same day,” an official at the hotel said.

Hotel Granvia Osaka, affiliated with West Japan Railway Co. , is also planning a fair of foodstuffs transported by the trains.

JR West aims to develop freight transport services using high-speed trains on the Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines into a main earnings source amid the coronavirus crisis. As part of feasibility studies, it is conducting one trial transport per week.

Last year, East Japan Railway Co. began the full-scale transport of fresh fishery products and other goods including those that may require urgent delivery, such as space parts for repairing home appliances and medical supplies, on shinkansen. While goods are placed in vacant space in the storage section during transportation at present, JR East plans to create an area for them in a passenger carriage if demand for the service increases.

Revenue from shinkansen services has plunged by more than half on a year-on-year basis as the coronavirus crisis has forced people to stay home. Even once the crisis is under control, the use of trains for business trips may not bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels as work from home and online meetings have come to be used more widely.

JR group companies, therefore, urgently need to develop new sources of revenue from shinkansen.

In a separate but related development, trucking company Sagawa Express Co. has joined hands with Hokkaido Railway Co., or JR Hokkaido, to use shinkansen for transporting freight between Hakodate in Hokkaido, and Aomori at the northern tip of Honshu, in place of combined truck and ferry transportation.

The tie-up has enabled Sagawa to ease its shortage of truck drivers and cut transportation time by half a day.

As the schedules of shinkansen are drawn up for passengers, however, it is difficult to set aside sufficient time to load and unload a large amount of goods at stations. In addition, the doors of shinkansen cars are not wide enough for large freight items.

“We have to continue all kinds of efforts to meet actual needs” and get the use of shinkansen for freight into full swing, a JR East official said.

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