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Japan Train Driver Shortage Spells End of Line for Some Local Services

The Yomiuri Shimbun
As train buffs watch on, the Botchan train arrives at Dogo Onsen Station in Matsuyama on the final run before its operation was suspended on Oct. 29.

Many local railway operators across Japan are having to reduce or suspend services due to a train driver shortage, and the problem looks likely to worsen in the years ahead.

At a time when the nation’s workforce is shrinking, operators are struggling to recruit new employees amid fierce competition, and the job’s heavy workload is also pushing drivers away from the profession. Some operators have raised wages and taken other steps to secure enough drivers, but the current situation is raising questions about the future of this important mode of public transport.

Starting this month, Kochi-based railway operator Tosaden Traffic Co. reduced a total of 29 streetcar runs that pass through locations including the Harimaya Bridge in the center of the city.

In late August, Tosaden became unable to maintain its regular streetcar schedule when two drivers took leave. Consequently, the firm decided to operate on a weekend and public holiday schedule — which have fewer runs — even on weekdays. Tosaden resumed its normal schedule when the two drivers returned in September, but the company has been forced to cut services again after two other drivers resigned.

Matsuyama-based Iyotetsu Group Co. has since November suspended operations of its Botchan train, a replica locomotive that is popular with tourists traveling to the Dogo Onsen hot spring resort. The company said it had to do so because of its driver shortage.

“We gave priority to operating the trains that people need for transport in their daily lives,” an Iyotetsu official explained.

Okayama-based Okayama Electric Tramway Co. has reduced services since August, and Fukui Tetsudo, which is based in Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, also has done so since Oct. 14.

Drivers lured by rivals

According to a survey conducted by the Okayama-based Research Institute for Local Public Transport in May and June, more than 40% of railway operators in Japan said their train crew personnel and engineers had “decreased” in number.

Train drivers need to stay in good health, despite at times having to work early-morning and late-night shifts, and intense concentration is required when driving, because any mistake could endanger people’s lives. The heavy workload and low wages have pushed a growing number of drivers away from the profession and also reportedly made hiring new recruits challenging.

In addition, fresh recruits must obtain a national qualification, so they are unable to quickly get in the driver’s seat.

Calculations based on the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s 2022 Basic Survey on Wage Structure found that the average annual income in the railway industry was about ¥5.2 million at operators with 100 to 999 employees, and about ¥3.9 million at operators with 10 to 99 employees. Incomes tend to be lower at local railway operators with fewer employees than at railway companies in large cities.

“In some cases, our drivers have been lured away by JR companies or major private railways,” a personnel manager at a local railway operator in western Japan said.

Railway operators are making efforts to improve working conditions for drivers. In October 2022 and April this year, Tosaden raised the base salary for employees, including drivers. Iyotetsu has increased drivers’ annual holidays by eight days.

The worker shortage is projected to become more acute in rural areas. In March, the Recruit Works Institute forecast Japan could face a labor shortage of 11 million people in 2040. The institute estimated that all prefectures except Tokyo will face labor supply shortages.

Even major railway operators with route networks in urban areas are becoming increasingly concerned about the labor situation and taking further steps to address an anticipated future driver shortage.

In August, Nankai Electric Railway Co. started test runs for an autonomous driving train project on the Wakayamako Line. The company aims to run trains without drivers though with other employees onboard.