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2013年3月 9日 (土)

被災地の鉄道 街づくりと一体で復旧したい

The Yomiuri Shimbun (Mar. 9, 2013)
Disaster areas' railway repairs must be integrated with city planning
被災地の鉄道 街づくりと一体で復旧したい(3月8日付・読売社説)

What measures should be taken to rebuild railways in regions struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake, including lines that represent a mainstay of livelihood and tourism in the areas?

This remains a weighty challenge even now as the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011, disaster draws near.

Rail lines on the Pacific coast in the Tohoku region were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

A total of about 300 kilometers of tracks on eight lines of East Japan Railway Co. and Sanriku Railway Co., a joint venture of private firms and local municipalities in Iwate Prefecture, remain out of service to this day.

Operations on some sections of JR East's Ishinomaki Line and Joban Line will return to normal by the end of the month at long last, while the Sanriku Railway is scheduled to resume full operations in April next year.

There are no indications, however, that the other lines rendered inoperable will fully resume service in the foreseeable future.

The greatest problem has been the difficulty securing funding for repairing the crippled rail lines.

According to estimates by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the total cost of fixing JR East's railways with damage over long sections--the Yamada Line in Iwate Prefecture, the Ofunato Line in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures and the Kesennuma Line in Miyagi Prefecture--will surpass 150 billion yen.


Bus system has its advantages

The huge repair expense is due to the necessity of specialized recovery work such as elevating ground levels and relocating routes to inland areas, according to the ministry.

As a temporary fix for the stalled train services, in August 2012 JR East incorporated a BRT (bus rapid transit) system into the Kesennuma Line. The buses run on the firm's exclusive lanes in areas where tracks have been removed on the line. BRT services were also launched this month to take the place of the Ofunato Line.

BRT systems are less costly in terms of both construction and maintenance compared to railways.

Buses on the Kesennuma Line are also three times as frequent as predisaster trains. Users of the route include high school students commuting to school and elderly people going to hospitals.

However, the number of passengers on BRT buses is less than 300 a day, about one-third of the amount seen when the railway was in operation. This is because many disaster-hit residents have evacuated from areas along the lines and very few sightseers use the BRT.

The roadway sections dedicated to use by BRT systems are few, with most services run on ordinary highways, and the buses are often entangled in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This means more time is required to use the bus than the train and bus passengers often have to transfer before reaching their final destination. These inconveniences may have contributed to the waning number of BRT users.

Municipalities along the Yamada Line have refused to accept plans to replace the line with a BRT system. Those municipal governments that have already introduced BRT systems agreed to do so on the condition that railway services are fully resumed in the future. They argue that resumption of railway services is a "prerequisite for revitalization" of the disaster-hit areas.


Weigh options before acting

Even before the calamity, some railway services in the region were unprofitable because of a declining number of users due to the shrinking population.

Given that commuting by car or expressway bus has become the norm in the region, many observers are skeptical about whether restoring railway services would lead to a higher number of users than before the disaster.

JR East and the municipal governments concerned should study ways to potentially restore railways in tandem with the requirements of city planning, by weighing the merits of railway recovery and the introduction of BRTs against their respective problems.

We hope officials will make the best possible choice in pursuit of an optimum means of public transportation through implementing reconstruction projects in the areas.

Under the government's current railway-related subsidy system, the cost of repairing lines of the Sanriku Railway, which has been in the red, will be almost fully covered by state funding. However, JR East, which has been earning a profit, is not entitled to any public assistance.

Considering the extraordinary circumstances in the wake of the disaster, we believe the government should provide JR East with public assistance for rebuilding its rail lines. This should include a provision, for instance, for the government to subsidize part of JR East's repair expenses under the recovery budget earmarked for the disaster.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2013)
(2013年3月8日01時30分  読売新聞)


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