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The opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen service this Saturday will mark a symbolic moment for development of the super-express railway network across Japan. The new 149 km section between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations — roughly one third of it going through the undersea Seikan Tunnel — for the first time links the nation’s northernmost prefecture with the shinkansen service that stretches through Honshu all the way down to Kagoshima on the southern end of Kyushu — 52 years after the bullet train service was launched between Tokyo and Osaka.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the latest extension of the shinkansen network will bring economic and other benefits worth the investments. Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido), the operator of the new section, expects to incur about ¥5 billion in annual losses in the first three years of its first shinkansen service, due chiefly to the huge maintenance cost of the aging Seikan Tunnel. It will take 15 more years for the service to be extended to Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, possibly spreading its economic impact throughout the prefecture. The new service takes passengers from Tokyo to the port city on the southern tip of Hokkaido in four hours and two minutes at its fastest — 53 minutes faster than under the current timetable but how it will compete with air travel is unclear.

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