The disappearing railways of Hokkaido

In my very first trip to Japan back in the mid 1990s, I decided to travel up from Tokyo to the northernmost island of Hokkaido to visit the Shiretoko Peninsula, a natural wildlife reserve where whale watching and hiking are popular in the summer months. I bought a cheaper version of the Japan Rail Pass called “seishun juhachi kippu” (literally, “18-yr-old youth ticket”) that allows you to travel on any train except the fast shinkansen and express trains. In practice, that means the slowest train available on any given railway line. When I got to Hokkaido, it was using these slow trains that I got to know a group of Japanese nature lovers who had rented a car to head out to the Shiretoko Peninsula, and I jumped off the train and we spent part of the journey together before I hitchhiked down the Eastern Coast of Hokkaido on my way back to Sapporo.

These local lines are in jeopardy today due to the aging population and decreasing numbers of passengers on the line, leading to heavy losses at JR Hokkaido, the rail network serving the region. Over the last 50 years the rail network in Hokkaido has been slowly but surely eroded, effectively cutting its network in half with only 2,400km of railways operated today down from 4,000km in the 1964, according to this 2016 article in Norimono News based on financial year 2015 numbers. And the trend is likely to continue with over 1,200km of the remaining network classified by JR Hokkaido as “difficult to operate on a standalone basis”, in other words another halving of the network could take place sooner rather than later.

As if to confirm this, JR Hokkaido posted its biggest-ever loss of ca $170m in its recent financial year-end statement, released just a few weeks ago in early May. As the company plans for losses to continue into financial year 2017, this leaves the rail network with little leeway to keep unprofitable services running. Digging deeper on page 9 of the financial statement, it seems that passenger numbers for traffic volume segments under 4,000 passengers/km/day have been dropping 5-10% a year, leading to losses across the board. It is difficult to tell if these numbers are dropping because less trains were put on vs a previous period to help keep costs down, leaving people to switch to other modes of transportation (car, bus etc). But looking at this from a purely financial perspective, the reality for JR is that below the 4,000 passengers/km/day line, there is little possibility of making these lines viable.

To find a solution to these closures, some regions are discussing switching to local buses to ferry people along the future closed rail line. As featured in the Nikkei newspaper on May 29th, other towns are introducing rideshare taxis to the closest open station, eg in the town of Rumoi where passengers still need to get home from work but where the train station closed down just last year. However as we’ve seen in the case of Kagoshima, the general outlook for BRT and other light rail in established city centers across Japan is relatively grim, so these solutions seem to be temporary measures until the entire line closes down and rideshare taxi prices become unmanageable to the employee and/or employer.

Could we use automated vehicles to act as railway lines without the trains? There would be many benefits of keeping the existing physical and social community infrastructure that has been built up with the development of the railroads. A couple of them include:

  • If these vehicles could use the existing train facilities, train stations could act as mini-Michinoeki, and allow local businesses and companies to continue as before using their existing facilities with customers and employees.
  • People could jump off to buy a drink/get a bite to eat, use the station washroom facilities etc, and jump back on with their automated vehicle on their return.
  • As the train network is fully electrified, there is unlimited power available to fill up automated vehicles needing a recharge to continue on their way. There would need to be some form of stepdown converter structure to allow simple plug-and-play direct from the railway power source outside the station, and allow vehicles to recharge say in the taxi or parking areas. Furthermore, these “mini-trains” would run/charge at any time of day or night, and on-demand. This would allow rail networks to focus on the high-volume high-frequency traffic lines, such as the new Shinkansen and 4,000 passenger+ line segments, while ad-hoc lower-volume mobility would be taken care of by vehicle automation and ridesharing in the local community.
  • As the taxi industry continues to have trouble recruiting sufficient taxi drivers to meet local demand, automated vehicles would ideally run alongside existing taxi or rideshare companies with a composition adapted to regional needs.

And while the exact setup of the ecosystem is still up for discussion, it is clear that vehicle drive automation is going to be a key component in helping maintain Japan’s local communities as they struggle to maintain their quality of life with a shrinking and aging population combined with a shrinking of the rail network. In practical terms one can expect a combination of cooperation and competition, with all players working towards the same goal – helping local communities get on with their everyday lives.