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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Not Straight Down the Line

Mar. 2, 2017

Some districts in and around Tokyo are hoping to revive the use of streetcars, or trams, but not everyone is convinced that's the way to go.

Streetcars used to be seen throughout Japan but they're quite rare today. They were introduced in 1895, and by their peak year in 1932 they were running in 65 cities across the country. The number of cities with streetcars is a quarter of what it used be as private cars, buses and subways became an everyday feature of modern Japan.

But people have recently been turning to streetcars once again. Katsushika Ward in eastern Tokyo is a mix of residential neighborhoods and small factories. The ward has been facing a public transportation problem for many years.

The challenge is to find a better way to connect the northern and southern areas of the ward. Currently, people taking this route have to use buses, which can be delayed in congested traffic.

Most of the train lines in Katsushika run east to west, so the ward is considering using a north-south line called the Shinkin Line. The 7-kilometer line was built about 90 years ago but it has been used mostly for freight trains.

The ward office is exploring the possibility of introducing a streetcar system on this line. It plans to conduct research this year on how many passengers would likely use it.

"A number of municipalities in Japan are putting energy into streetcar projects, so we will study from their example," says the ward's mayor, Katsunori Aoki.

Toyama, a city of about 400,000, is a successful case. For many people there, the streetcar system is a popular way of getting around town. The city opened the Toyama Light Rail in 2006 to revitalize the city. The city's former railway line had closed because of dwindling passenger numbers but the city transformed the line into a light-rail transit system, or LRT. The strength of the vibrations in the cars has been reduced.

"I always take the tram when I go out," says one passenger. "Although my legs are growing weaker, the tram car is convenient."

During rush hour, streetcars run every 10 minutes, and even during daytime off-peak hours they run regularly. The number of passengers using streetcars every day is now double that of the former train service.

"You wait for 15 minutes tops before a tram comes," says Yasuo Awashima, president of Toyama Light Rail. "Since the floor is low and the cars have no steps, it's easy for the elderly and people with disabilities to get on and off. We receive favorable feedback from passengers, saying our trams are much better than the old trains."

But it's not easy to launch a streetcar system. A plan to introduce one in Utsunomiya City, north of Tokyo, is currently stuck in deadlock. The idea is to build a 15-kilometer-long LRT line between Utsunomiya and a neighboring city. The officials hope the streetcars will ease traffic congestion.

The total construction cost is estimated at about 400 million dollars. It would be the country's first LRT line built from scratch. The city officials and the business community back the plan, as it would bring economic benefits.

But some residents and some members of the city assembly are questioning the return on investment. In last year's mayoral election, the incumbent who supported the project won against an opponent who was calling for a suspension of the project, but the race was close.

"It's become difficult to start construction on time, as coordinating the project is taking much longer than we had expected," says Utsunomiya Mayor Eiichiro Sato.

It's uncertain whether the service can be launched by 2019 as planned. Areas around Japan are thinking of reviving the tram system but it's no easy task to get everyone on board.

Ryo Takagi, a specialist in electric railway systems from Kogakuin University, joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu.

Shibuya: There appears to be opposition campaigns by local residents. Why are they opposed?

Takagi: There may be opposition because it is much more expensive to introduce light rail than to start bus services, and the benefit of the project will not easily reach areas far from the planned light rail tracks. This may be avoided by reorganizing public transport in the city as a whole with the new light-rail system at its center. This will then require an agreement with the existing transport operators. So the important thing is that the entire community -- including residents near and far from the light rail tracks, public transport operators and local businesses -- are involved in the discussion to reach an agreement over what the future public transport of the area can be.

Beppu: But there are efforts around the country to revive trams. What triggered the move?

Takagi: I think there are now more people who have been strongly impressed by the light-rail systems outside the country that look so nice. It is natural for those people to wish that there were similar light-rail systems in their cities as well. The success of Toyama Light Rail would also have been a strong encouragement.

Beppu: What kinds of cities are suited to light-rail trains?

Takagi: For cities with populations ranging from around 100,000 to 1 million, light rail has the capability of becoming the dominant mode of urban public transport. If there is an existing rail network in the city, the light rail system in that particular city can be made more attractive by, for example, running a service with both tram lines and railways.

Beppu: After a light-rail system is installed, then comes the question of maintenance. What is necessary to make trams succeed?

Takagi: In Japan, the traditional policy of local and central governments was just to leave the railways and trams to the operators and do almost nothing until the operator started to consider closing them. It is very difficult to depend solely on passenger fares to maintain light-rail systems. Support by the local community, including but not limited to financial support, is very important, and should continue for decades after the introduction of the light rail.