Will new rail line prove worth cost of over ¥9 billion per kilometer?

Operations have started on the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen, a 66-kilometer line connecting Takeo-Onsen Station in Saga Prefecture and Nagasaki Station in Nagasaki Prefecture. The question is how to realize benefits that are commensurate with the ¥620 billion cost of the project.

Until the launch of the line, the journey from Hakata Station in Fukuoka Prefecture to Nagasaki Station by limited express train on the conventional line took about 1 hour and 50 minutes. Now, a transfer at Takeo-Onsen Station onto the Kamome bullet train cuts the journey time by about 30 minutes.

Redevelopments are underway in the area around Nagasaki Station. Last autumn, a facility with conference and exhibition halls opened, and next autumn, a new station building with a luxury hotel and other facilities will be completed.

The Nagasaki prefectural government estimates that the number of overnight stays in the prefecture by JR passengers will increase by 55,000 per year due to increased tourism and business demand. Efforts should be hastened to spread the economic effects of the new Shinkansen line to the entire Kyushu region.

Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu) has also begun operating a new sightseeing train that tours western Kyushu. The region is rich in tourism resources such as hot springs, local cuisines, and World Heritage sites. If an attractive excursion route can be offered, it will help revitalize the tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Some municipalities are subsidizing the commuter passes of workers and students on the Shinkansen, which may also encourage migration to the region.

The problem is construction has not started on a 51-kilometer section between Shin-Tosu Station in Saga Prefecture and Takeo-Onsen Station, needed to connect the Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen to the Kyushu Shinkansen, which runs from Hakata Station to Kagoshima-Chuo Station in Kagoshima Prefecture.

The Saga prefectural government opposes the project, claiming the benefits are not expected to outweigh the costs. Saga Prefecture is expected to bear ¥66 billion in construction costs, but even if the line is opened, the journey time between Hakata and Saga stations will be shortened by only about 20 minutes.

Furthermore, in principle, the management of conventional lines running parallel to the Shinkansen will be separated from JR, and there is a strong possibility that the number of services will have to be reduced.

Saga Prefecture faces a challenge common to many municipalities when new Shinkansen lines open. However, if this situation is left unchanged, people traveling from Hakata to Nagasaki will have to transfer from a conventional train to the Shinkansen along the way. This will not attract a large number of visitors.

The central government and local governments must carefully discuss what the best options are for the development of Kyushu as a whole and its various regions.

The Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen is one of five new Shinkansen lines that were planned in 1973, during the period of rapid economic growth. The Hokuriku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen are also undergoing extension work.

However, Japan’s low birth rate and aging population mean that the finances of the central and local governments are increasingly tight. It is time for the government to reexamine its Shinkansen development plan to see if it can continue in its current form.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 24, 2022)