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Narrow gauge legacy

01 Apr 2002

AS THE Shinkansen network expands into less densely populated regions, one difficulty that has arisen is the financial losses on parallel 1067mm gauge lines, which normally lose their limited express trains.

This issue has been brought sharply into focus by the extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen north of Morioka to Hachinohe, now expected to open in December 2002. It is due to be extended further to Aomori by 2013, and in 1998 a route was defined through the 53850m Seikan Tunnel to Sapporo, the principal city on Hokkaido.

When the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen were built in the 1960s and 1970s, this was not a problem because high population density along the Pacific coast ensured that there was plenty of local and regional traffic connecting into Shinkansen services at the larger towns and cities. The old Tokaido line between Tokyo and Kobe, for example, is still reasonably busy with freight as well as passengers, including overnight sleepers.

Although the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen north of Tokyo were completed through more rural territory in 1982, Japanese National Railways was still obliged to keep the parallel narrow gauge main lines open.

But government policy changed after privatisation in 1987. To relieve JR East of operating losses after the Nagano Shinkansen was completed in 1997, the company was no longer obliged to keep open the parallel Shinetsu main line. The section between Karuizawa and Yokokawa featuring 6·7% gradients was closed, while the remainder is operated by Nagano Prefecture as the Shinano Railway.

So what happens now to the narrow gauge Tohoku main line that connects Hokkaido with Aomori, Hachinohe, Morioka and the rest of Japan through the Seikan tunnel?

Today this electrified route carries limited expresses running through the tunnel from Hakodate to Morioka, where passengers change to the Shinkansen. From December, these trains will terminate at Hachinohe, leaving towns not served by the new Shinkansen more isolated than before. Overnight sleeping car trains will continue to run through to Tokyo on the narrow gauge.

The Tohoku main line also carries 50 freight trains a day, which would become less competitive with coastal shipping if they were forced to divert to the only alternative line along the Sea of Japan coast.

Writing in Japan Railway & Transport Review, Shuichi Takashima points out that 'communities served by limited express trains tended to favour the mini-standard when they realise that full standard Shinkansen will not stop at their stations. For a while, mini-standard proponents were in the majority along the southern half of the proposed route [to Aomori], but the full standard was finally chosen for the whole section.'

Mini-shinkansen, which involves converting narrow gauge routes to 1435mm gauge so that through trains to Tokyo can operate, was developed to extend the reach of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which was completed in 1982. Starting in 1992 to Yamagata, mini-shinkansen trains now operate to Shinjo and Akita.

But adopting this solution between Morioka and Aomori would have ruled out full exploitation of the Seikan tunnel, which was built to Shinkansen standards and was designed for dual-gauge track using three rails.

The solution eventually adopted between Morioka and Hachinohe was to set up two new companies in partnership with the Iwate and Aomori prefectures. From next year, Iwate Galaxy Railroad will operate the section south of the boundary between the two prefectures. The Aoi Mori Railway will take over from there to Hachinohe, thus maintaining a through route.

But Takashima says JR Freight is demanding subsidies because it believes track access charges levied by the two new railway companies are bound to be higher than they are today.