JIN-312 -- Light Rail Transit in the Spotlight

J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 312
Wednesday March 9, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Light Rail Transit in the Spotlight
+++Sayonara Gifu Tramway
+++LRT the Answer
+++The Great Transit Hope for Hamamatsu

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Light Rail Transit in the Spotlight

The last JIN was elegiac in describing the fate of the
"Blue Trains," express sleepers taking passengers to
the ends of the archipelago and into a fresh day. The
present newsletter, on the fate of Japan's tramways,
would share a wistful tone if not for a glimmer of
hope on the horizon.

I've always thought the existence of a tramway was a
sign of a livable city. A juddering trolley suggested
a leisurely pace of life and air a tad cleaner than
in places where gas-powered vehicles had the run of
streets. This rule of thumb would seem to hold in
Japan. Trolley-blessed cities like Hakodate and
Sapporo, Toyama and Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kagoshima
offer gracious living in clean, spacious environments.

But, according to the Japan Tramway Society, only 7 of
19 companies operated in the black in 2003. The number
of tramways will decrease at the end of the month.

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+++Sayonara Gifu Tramway

Last July the Mayor of Gifu, Shigemitsu Horie, announced
the city could not undertake the burden of a streetcar
system in the red. Meitetsu, the operator of the 36.6-
kilometer-long system, said service would discontinue
at the end of March 2005. With the city unwilling to
pump taxpayer yen into the system, municipalities along
tram routes floated a plan where they would purchase
the Meitetsu assets and entrust operation of the tramway
to Okayama Denki Kido. But negotiations broke down over
the transfer price. A provisional estimate put the cost
of infrastructure development and operation at 8.4
billion yen over 10 years.

++LRT the Answer

The introduction of Light Rail Transit (LRT) is bruited
about these days as a panacea for urban transit ills.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry
reports 60 nationwide plans for the introduction of LRT.

One factor behind the trend is the fact that vehicles
clog city centers, not only impeding transit but also
polluting the air. The aforementioned ministry's action
program calls for LRT as one countermeasure against
global warming, since it offers greater carrying capacity
and does not burn fossil fuels.

Another prime mover of the trend in interest in LRT is
that it features integrity with the urban environment
manifest in ease of transfer to other transport modes;
in car design; and, with low-floor cars, in being
barrier free. The last advantage carries particular
weight in a country as rapidly graying as Japan.

In France and Germany city-bound folk are encouraged
to park at suburban LRT stations and transfer to
low-floor tramcars. Local cities feature “transit
malls” for exclusive use of LRT and pedestrians.
The combination of walker-friendliness and railway
convenience has revitalized local towns.

Finally, LRT is more punctual than buses or conventional

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+++The Great Transit Hope for Hamamatsu

LRT is just what tramless Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture,
needs. Its downtown has hallowed out as department stores
have shuttered during the long recession and under pressure
from suburban interlopers. The Hamamatsu Urban Environment
Forum, led by Hiroyasu Uchida, envisions 19 LRT lines,
operating on 134 kilometers of track, in city and suburbs.
The forum has presented its plan to the city and sought
citizen support through "Next Generation Transportation"
exhibits at citywide venues. "Unless people are free to
see the city on foot, it will not bounce back," says
Uchida. "LRT would be an effective means to funnel
suburbanites into downtown."

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At a Standstill in Okayama

However, with the exception of Toyama Prefecture, where the
Toyamako-line from Toyama to Iwasehama will be converted to
an LRT line, LRT remains a pipe dream. Even in Okayama,
whose existing tramway is in the black, a 1.6-kilometer
LRT extension from Okayama Station stalled.

The original plan called for LRT to be built beside the
sidewalk adjacent to a six-lane road at a cost of 42 billion
yen. A daily ridership of 6,000 was forecast.

As a preliminary step the city planned to turn the
sidewalk-adjacent lane into a bus lane on an experimental
basis. The plan collapsed after the taxi and bus industries
and prefectural police could not reach a consensus.
Citizens complained there was no point in lavishing money
on a rail system less than two kilometers long. And car
park operators said the bus lane would impede entrance
and exit from lots.

Trolleys have a reputation for being slow, dirty, and
tacky. The LRT could reverse the image of urban rail
transit. Yet the people of the land of the Kyoto Protocol
need to be educated in the virtues of the next generation
of urban transit.

More difficult will be the revolution in consciousness
likely necessary to wean Japanese from their automobiles
-- their identification with which is evident in the
expression “my car” for the family wheels.

-- Burritt Sabin

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