Concurrent with the opening of the Tohoku Shinkansen
extension to Shin Aomori on 4 December 2010, Aoimori
Railway Co., Ltd. celebrated the opening of its Aoimori
extension linking north and south Aomori Prefecture.
The company was founded as a joint public–private
venture on 30 May 2001, and when the Hachinohe extension
of the Tohoku Shinkansen opened on 1 December 2002,
Aoimori Railway took over the Metoki to Hachinohe section
of the Tohoku main line from JR East for operation as a line
running parallel to the shinkansen. It was Aoimori Railway’s
first step as a regional railway operator.
The December 2010 opening of the Aomori extension
has linked 11 towns and cities with approximately 670,000
(48%) people out of the prefectural population of 1.37 million
living near the line. The population centres are Aomori, the
prefectural capital, and Hachinohe, a key centre for fishing
The reason for establishing Aoimori Railway in 2001 was
to continue operating conventional lines abandoned by the
JR group of operators as third-sector lines running parallel
to new shinkansen lines. This idea was agreed by the
government of the day, which made separate management
of the conventional parallel line a condition for building the
Morioka to Aomori extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen.
Subsequent consultations with Aomori Prefecture and local trackside governments in July 1991 resulted in Aomori
Prefecture agreeing in principle to separate management
of the parallel line, and 7 years later a decision was taken to
permit full-scale construction up to Shin Aomori Station. This
decision increased the urgency to establish Aoimori Railway
to take over management of the parallel lines.
A key difference between Aoimori Railway and other
railway operators is that it uses a two-tier system where
business segments are managed separately; in this case,
management of infrastructure, such as the track and signals,
is separate from train operations.
Although Aoimori Railway is the first railway business in Japan to use this two-tier system, overseas railway businesses use it commonly.
Infrastructure companies established after privatization of national railways in Europe
and New Zealand, manage the tracks, etc., while passenger
and freight operations are managed by separate railway
operators, encouraging new operators helps secure railways
through track-leasing arrangements. (In New Zealand, the
infrastructure was subsequently returned to the state and renationalized.)
At Aoimori Railway, infrastructure is managed by
Aomori Prefecture while Aoimori Railway devotes itself
solely to passenger transport as a third-sector operator.
As described earlier, JR East requested separation of the
parallel line for management by a different company as a
condition for starting construction of the Tohoku Shinkansen
Hachinohe extension, suggesting that JR East thought it
would be difficult to run the parallel line at a profit after the
shinkansen opening. However, because the local people still
need conventional train services, Aoimori Railway adopted
a two-tier system to run train services along the line as economically as possible.
In this two-tier system, Aoimori Railway pays track
usage fees to the track owner Aomori Prefecture. Similarly, in addition to Aoimori Railway’s passenger services, JR
Freight runs freight trains between Tokyo and Hokkaido on
the tracks, so JR Freight also pays track use fees. However,
although freight trains with heavy axle loads cause more wear
and tear to tracks than lighter passenger trains, resulting in
higher maintenance costs, the track use fees were set low
in accordance with the freight track use system determined
by the government. Consequently, Aomori Prefecture must
unfortunately bear the increased maintenance costs of letting JR Freight use its tracks.
As described earlier, the opening of the Tohoku Shinkansen
led directly to the establishment of Aoimori Railway, so
Aoimori Railway cannot be considered completely separately
from the shinkansen. As railway demand has decreased with
diversification of transport modes, both regional railways
and shinkansen have respective roles to play.
Back in the 1970s, Japan planned to build motorways
and shinkansen nationwide to underpin national prosperity. In those days, the opening of a shinkansen meant expectations
for more interaction between rural areas and major cities,
helping stimulate regional economies. However, conversely,
the effect of opening shinkansen just accelerated migration
of rural populations to Tokyo. This drain on local populations
weakened regional economic robustness, and local railways
ultimately ceded their key transportation role to automobiles,
resulting in line closures.
Even today, the popularization of air travel and
penetration of private cars have multiplied options in the
long-distance passenger travel sector, leaving local railways in decline.
The section of the Tohoku main line handed to Aomori
Prefecture and Aoimori Railway was once the link between
Tokyo and Aomori, and beyond to the Seikan ferry and on to Hokkaido, making it a key artery for carrying people and
goods across Japan.
Nevertheless, even with the opening of the entire length
of the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin Aomori, the Tohoku
main line and local lines can still play a role in competing
effectively with air and car. The shinkansen brings people
and tourists directly and quickly from Tokyo to Aomori while
the conventional lines can play a role functioning as arteries
within Aomori Prefecture carrying inter-regional travellers
arriving by shinkansen onward to local destinations. For
example, Aoimori Railway runs through famous hot spring
areas, such as Asamushi and Komaki hot springs in the
Tohoku region. Therefore, more than ever, local lines can be
an important secondary network serving tourists coming to
Aomori by shinkansen to visit sites like Lake Towada (Lake of
Mystery) using Aoimori Railway, or the Shimokita Peninsula
famed for tuna delicacies, and temples on Osorezan (Mt
Fear) using the Ominato Line.
Furthermore, Aoimori Railway can play a feeder role in
transporting local people to the shinkansen, so that they
can travel onwards to other prefectures, Tokyo, and perhaps Narita Airport.
In conclusion, I would like to express my view on the
hidden value found in local railways. In some strange way,
stations—even small unmanned ones—are centres for their
communities. Usually, we use railways without thinking, but
once a line is closed and a station lost, the community loses
vitality as if a light has gone out.
Although the Tohoku Shinkansen and Aoimori Railway
run side by side from Hachinohe and Aomori (Shin Aomori),
they are by no means rivals. Rather, I hope they can build
a complementary relationship as an inseparable duo for revitalizing local communities.