Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 9 (Front cover & p.1)

Front Cover

Photo: Old KIHA 52 DMU on JR East Iiyama Line
(M. Mashima Photo Office)


Keeping rural railways running

Even after the rapid motorization of Japan through the 1960s and 70s, most people hardly understood the real significance of the change. They continued believing that the railway was like an unsinkable battleship, and wanted trains to keep running in rural areas; they even wanted new lines built. When the railway management tried to close some lightly-used lines, protestors came to the head office by car! As JNR's financial crisis deepened, the management finally managed to close some loss-making lines, but most rural lines were maintained by heavy cross-subsidies from the profits of the highly-efficient shinkansen and Tokyo's overcrowded suburban services. The separation of the railway business in the less-populated islands of Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu at JNR privatization in 1987, eased the cross-subsidization to some extent, but many rural lines in mainland Honshu still depend heavily on the profits of the shinkansen and Tokyo commuter services. The so-called Management Stabilization Fund for the smaller three islands also depends if not directly, entirely on the profitability of the three major railways in Honshu, because the capital funds were raised by issuing government bonds repayed through a complex financial arrangement from the profits of the three JRs in Honshu.
Such heavy interdependence within railways no longer exists in other industrialized countries, where central or local government takes responsibility to maintain unprofitable but socially-necessary railways. People living in Tokyo or using the shinkansen have so far accepted the burden of cross-subsidy for their fellow citizens in the countryside, but they may change their ideas because they can no longer afford such benevolence as Japan's economy reaches maturity. The railway may have to fight another political battle in the not-so-distant future.
T. Suga