Iwate deer-watching train aims to turn pests into popular attraction

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A train passenger shines his flashlight along the side of the tracks to look for deer at around 8 p.m. on July 9 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

MORIOKA — While rural railway operators have been troubled by collisions with deer that have resulted in delays and damage to trains, Sanriku Railway in Iwate Prefecture has launched a project in which passengers observe deer on special nighttime trains.

The company has taken advantage of the large deer population along the railway, which runs along the coast of the prefecture, hoping the project will become a popular tourist attraction.

Evening adventure

The special train for deer watching ran for the first time on the evening of July 9. As it entered the section between Kamaishi and Ryoishi stations, passengers in the car began to shout, “A deer, a deer!” and stared out at the brush.

“It looks like it ran off toward the mountain,” announced a crew member, causing the passengers to sigh or laugh.

The special train runs between Kamaishi and Otsuchi stations. In areas where deer are often seen, the train slows down to ensure safety.

A zookeeper from the prefecture rode the first train and explained deer ecology to passengers. Tickets for this ride, which included a boxed meal, cost ¥2,500. Tourists from outside the prefecture also participated, and the 35 seats available on the day sold out.

“I felt like I was peeking into a zoo at night,” said a 52-year-old man from Morioka.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A deer appears in the grass by the railroad tracks at around 8 p.m.

Every 2 days

Last fiscal year, the company logged 162 collisions with deer, meaning on average one collision occurred every two days. The number is more than six times that of a year earlier, when there were 26 such cases.

If a collision occurs, operations must be suspended. Money must also be spent to repair the train. The company has been installing nets and ropes along the tracks to try to prevent deer from getting onto them. However, employees have had a hard time with the situation, with some deer jumping over 1-meter-high nets.

“Deer have a high capacity to learn. They have exploited the flaws in our measures,” said Kazushi Hashikami, the chief of the business section at the company.

It was 30-year-old train driver and recent hire Akinori Sato who came up with the idea of a train for deer watching. He changed companies last February, moving from Shonan Monorail in Kanagawa Prefecture. While he was surprised at the number of collisions, he came up with the current project as a way to turn the situation to the company’s advantage.

Restoring tourism demand

Sanriku Railway has survived its fair share of disasters, including the tsunami that followed the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Directly after the disaster, the entire line was out of service, but by April 2014 trains had started running the whole length again. The railway was also hit by a strong typhoon in October 2019, resulting in the tracks being suspended in midair due to a loss of soil fill. Operations resumed on the entire line in March 2020.

The railway is now facing down the novel coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the deer-watching project aims to restore tourism demand as much as is possible.

A special train for deer watching is scheduled to run again in August. The company is also considering routine runs for the train.

“For locals, deer are a part of everyday life, but we would like to turn the animals into a new attraction for the region,” said Junichi Konno, the chief of the company’s train operations.