Japan’s newest bullet train line has busy first year

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apan’s newest bullet train line, now a year old, has led to a better-than-expected threefold increase in the number of rail passengers traveling between Tokyo and Hokuriku and lifted that region’s tourism industry.

      Monday marked the first anniversary of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which is jointly operated by East Japan Railway and West Japan Railway. It connects Tokyo with Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, in just under two and a half hours.

      “It’s been a very smooth ride,” JR West President Seiji Manabe said on a visit to the region Monday.

      Estimates had passenger traffic doubling in the first year compared with the preceding 12 months, but when the numbers were counted, it had tripled to nearly 9 million. A similar performance is expected in the second year, Manabe predicted.

      Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, one of the the country’s most famous gardens, saw a 60% year-on-year rise in visitors from last April to this past February. Visitors to nine major hot spring resort areas in the region increased by roughly a fifth to 3.21 million from April to December of last year. Located on the Sea of Japan coast, the region consists of Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui prefectures.

      So far, the new train line does not seem to be having a “straw effect”  — siphoning economic activity to the capital — on the region. The office vacancy rate in Kanazawa is expected to fall into the single digits in 2016 for the first time in 18 years, according to CBRE. So far in the second year, tourist reservations have been topping initial-year levels.

     But airlines have gotten the short end of the stick. Travel on routes between Tokyo and Hokuriku fell about 40%. The new bullet train line appears to have nearly achieved JR East’s goals of stealing market share from airlines, which include shifting the ratio of rail to air travel between Tokyo gateway Haneda Airport and Toyama Airport from 6:4 to 9:1.

     All Nippon Airways, a unit of ANA Holdings, will reduce round-trip flights between Haneda and Komatsu Airport, which serves Kanazawa, from six a day to four starting March 27. It will do the same to flights between Haneda and Toyama Airport.

      Government plans call for extending the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Osaka eventually. Having witnessed its success so far, many in the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, are eager for this to happen soon. This sense of urgency partly reflects the fear that the rail connection will deepen Hokuriku’s economic relationship with the Tokyo area at Kansai’s expense.

     Work has already begun on the next stretch, which will run from Kanazawa to Tsuruga in neighboring Fukui Prefecture and is targeted for completion in March 2023. A ruling coalition committee is still deliberating proposals for the Tsuruga-Osaka segment. It decided last Thursday to narrow down five proposed routes to three running through Kyoto Station.

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