Kumamoto: Fan of Quake-Hit Railway Aids Restoration Efforts

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yusuke Shishido speaks on a platform at Minami-Aso Railway’s Takamori Station in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 9.

TAKAMORI, Kumamoto — As a teenager on an internship with Minami-Aso Railway Co. in March 2016, Yusuke Shishido became enamored with the sightseeing trolley train the company runs. He planned to work for the company after graduating from the railroad vocational school he was attending, but just a month later, the Kumamoto Earthquake struck.

Shishido’s beloved railway was heavily damaged. But instead of simply standing on the sidelines, he has been actively supporting efforts toward the line’s complete restoration, expected in July.

The Kagoshima native applied to become a member of the central government’s Local Vitalization Cooperator program that dispatches young talent to mainly depopulated municipalities to promote local areas.

Shishido was accepted and stationed in Takamori, one of the municipalities that funds the railway. It is also home to the company’s headquarters.

Now 26, Shishido has been working hard to bring the railway to the public’s attention and has also been assigned to operate the trains.

Passion into action

On April 9, the weather was fine at Takamori Station, from where there was a picturesque view of the mountains of Aso. The platform was crowded with tourists waiting to board the sightseeing trolley train Yusuge.

Shishido was delighted to see the passengers board, then slipped into the driver’s seat and eased the train ahead.

The 17.7-kilometer line runs through one of the world’s largest volcanic calderas. During his internship over seven years ago, Shishido was overwhelmed by the magnificent scenery visible from the train and moved by the passengers’ smiles.

“Everything feels fresh,” he recalled thinking. After his two-week internship was over, he decided to work for the railway.

Then the Kumamoto Earthquake caused a landslide that washed away a portion of the train tracks. The disaster also caused numerous cracks in tunnels. There were no immediate prospects for resuming operations.

Before he interviewed to work for Minami-Aso Railway, the company told him it was not planning to hire anyone.

After graduating from the vocational school in spring 2017, Shishido started working for another company. He often visited the railway line to keep abreast of the restoration efforts. He then learned that the local government of Takamori was looking for workers via the Local Vitalization Cooperator program to support the railway’s restoration.

Shishido applied for a position and was selected. He started performing his duties in Takamori in October 2019.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Minami-Aso Railway stamp, far left, and a logo devised by Shishido on a train car features 10 ovals signifying all 10 stations of the railway connected again.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
A logo designed by Shishido appears on a train car. It features 10 ovals signifying all 10 stations of the railway that are connected again.

The restoration of the railway was a gradual process. Shishido organized walking tours along the tracks to help the public see the restoration work. The tour became popular and was held about 10 times.

As part of other efforts to draw sightseers to the railway, he created the design for the railway’s commemorative stamp at Takamori Station. He also helped devise the logo and exterior for the railway’s first new train car in about 30 years.

Bringing vitality back

Shishido’s contract through the local vitalization program is due to expire in September next year, after which he is expected to become a regular employee of the railway company in recognition of his diligence.

“He works on various tasks with a positive attitude and fresh sense of direction,” said Ryuichi Nakagawa, director of the company’s railway department.

After undergoing seven months of training, Shishido qualified as a train driver in February 2021 and has been assigned to commercial operations since May of that year. Although it was a dream come true for him, he didn’t become that happy.

It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the number of visitors to the area had declined. There were even days when the railway had zero passengers, he said.

Before the earthquake, there were 250,000 passengers on the Minami-Aso Railway in fiscal 2015. This plummeted to about 37,000 in fiscal 2016. The number was at about 46,000 in fiscal 2021.

The railway will resume full operations on July 15.

“One of my goals is to bring vitality back to the railway, including to the many people who visit,” Shishido said. “I hope to return things to the way they were.”

Steady progress since 2016

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Minami-Aso Railway train stops at a station in the village of Minami-Aso on March 15 during a test run to prepare for full resumption of operations.

The Minami-Aso Railway is a semipublic railway funded by local governments along the line.

One of the spectacular spots along the line is the First Shirakawa Bridge, a railway bridge that is about 166 meters long and 62 meters above a ravine. Passengers on the sightseeing trolley train are treated to an impressive view of the ravine below and the local primeval forest all around.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A train crosses the replacement First Shirakawa Bridge on March 15 during a test run to prepare for full resumption of operations.

In addition to some tracks and tunnels on the line, the foundation of the First Shirakawa Bridge was severely damaged by the April 2016 earthquake.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Minami-Aso Railway track is partially washed away by a landslide in April 2016.

Of the 17.7-kilometer stretch between Takamori and Tateno stations, the 7.1-kilometer section between Takamori and Nakamatsu stations resumed operations a few months later.

Now that the restoration work has been completed, safety inspections are underway, including test runs of new trains, on the out-of-service section to prepare for the resumption of services to the entire line.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

At Tateno Station, the Minami-Aso Railway connects to the JR Hohi Line. In resuming full operations, the railway will extend service to Higo-Ozu Station, with the expectation of added convenience for passengers.