New Shinkansen comes up short

While we’re in the mood to talk about high speed express trains, we should discuss the West Kyushu Shinkansen, which opened for business on Sept. 23. Its most notorious feature as far as the media is concerned is that it’s the shortest Shinkansen line, at least for the time being: 66 kilometers long, connecting Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki stations in as little at 23 minutes, having replaced the Kamome limited express train. In fact, the new Shinkansen, which will run 44 round trips a day, has appropriated the Kamome name, probably to make locals feel more familiar with something they likely didn’t see much need for; or, at least, not in its present form.

JR Kyushu, which operates the new train, makes a big deal in its advertising of the fact that the Kamome Shinkansen will reduce the journey from Hakata in Fukuoka, the main Kyushu hub, to Nagasaki by 30 minutes. However, the new line does not connect directly to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line. It’s actually completely independent and self-contained, meaning that it only exists between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki. To get from Takeo Onsen to Hakata, you transfer at Takeo Onsen to the Relay Kamome, which is not a Shinkansen and doesn’t have a connection to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line either. In order for the new Shinkansen to connect directly to the Kyushu Shinkansen line, a new route would have to be made from Takeo Onsen to Shin Tosu station on the Kyushu Line, a distance of about 50 kilometers, and while JR Kyushu has said that it wants to someday build such a line, there are no plans at present to do so. That’s because Saga Prefecture, through which the connecting line would pass, doesn’t want to pay for any more construction. 

Why it doesn’t want to pay for something that would seem to add value to its infrastructure is an interesting, complicated story. Though JR Kyushu, like all JR group companies, is privately owned, it can’t really operate without considerable assistance from the central government, which guarantees the huge amounts of money necessary for constructing Shinkansen lines. The West Kyushu line cost ¥620 billion to construct, which was 20 percent more than the initial estimate. Much of that had to be covered by the central government and Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures.

However, according to a Sept. 24 article in the Asahi Shimbun, the public, at both the local and the national level, will be paying for the new Shinkansen line for a while. Naturally, people in Nagasaki hope the new line will boost tourism to their city, and the area merchants association has high hopes in that regard, which is why the city spent a lot of money to accommodate it. The actual structure of Nagasaki Station was moved 150 meters to the west, and in conjunction with the opening of the new line the city has also built a new exhibition and conference hall near the west exit, and a large retail business complex near the east exit. In 2024, Nagasaki Stadium will open. In short, the city has spent a lot of money to boost inbound tourism for a city of 400,000, which makes it a substantially smaller market than Fukuoka to the north, and according to Asahi no one in the local government has endeavored to come up with an estimate for the economic impact of either the Shinkansen or its related development. Even JR Kyushu says it doesn’t have any idea how many people will actually use the new train. As already stated, there is no direct connection to the main Kyushu Shinkansen, and the lack of a smooth transfer from Hakata could dampen repeat users on the new line. And it’s not as if there isn’t competition. There’s a highway express bus from Fukuoka to Nagasaki that’s only ¥2,900, or about a third of the cost of a train ticket that uses the new Shinkansen, and it doesn’t take that much longer than the train. 

So ridership volume remains to be seen, but, in the end, it may not matter because JR Kyushu isn’t expected to pay back all the money the central government lent to it. The construction ministry appoints independent corporations to which JR companies pay back government loans. The JR companies repays the loans through usage fees over a 30-year period, which in the case of the West Kyushu Shinkansen will amount to ¥15.3 billion. The amount is supposed to reflect a line’s expected profitability in relation to its length, and since the total cost of construction was ¥620, JR Kyushu will pay a very small portion. It’s the same with the main Kyushu Shinkansen line, which cost ¥1.5 trillion to build, of which JR Kyushu will pay ¥306 billion over the 30 years. What that means is the remainder of the bill has to be covered by the central (two-thirds) and local (one-third) governments, and while the independent corporation can always extend the payment period past the initial 30-year period, they usually don’t, which means the public gets stuck with the bill in the end. It should be noted that JR Kyushu, like all JR companies, is private, and yet it is still treated as a public corporation by the central government just like the old JNR. Of course, public transportation is a public good, and there’s nothing wrong with the government promoting it, but it’s highly selective about how it spends taxpayer money. It doles out billions and billions of yen on high-profile Shinkansen construction that invariably goes way over budget and doesn’t necessarily make people’s lives any easier. And we’re not just talking about the maglev. JR plans to extend the Hokuriku Shinkansen 125 kilometers from Kanazawa to Tsuruga sometime in the future and it will cost at least ¥1.1 trillion. Extending the relatively new Hokkaido Shinkansen 212 km from Hakodate to Sapporo will cost at least ¥1.6 trillion, and the latest projections say it won’t be finished in time for the assumed 2030 Sapporo Olympics. The line is already considered something of a bust because the Hakodate Shinkansen station doesn’t connect easily to any other train lines in the area, making it a kind of unicorn train line. 

The point is that the central government loves to spend money on Shinkansen lines whose base purpose, after all, is to connect all corners of the country to Tokyo. The government never subsidizes local train lines that actually serve the regions where they’re located, and since JR companies are private and act that way, they are constantly reducing or completely shutting down train lines deemed “unprofitable,” even if they still serve a purpose in areas that may nevertheless be losing population. It’s a double standard: treat Shinkansen lines as valuable public services, even if their ridership is specialized and not guaranteed, while ignoring local train lines that actually do serve the public but are treated as liabilities by their private owners. 

And that’s why there likely won’t be an extension of the West Kyushu Shinkansen from Takeo Onsen to Shin Tosu. Saga is already stuck with a huge bill for the two-count-em-two stations on the new line that fall within the prefecture. They don’t have a major tourist destination city like Nagasaki, so they don’t see the point in spending any more, and without their permission JR can’t build the extension, no matter how much the government wants it to happen.



  1. fireminer · September 25

    Thanks for the article! I noticed something similar happened to the British rail system following privatization. A lot of subsidies to private rail companies, who just sit on a deteriorating system without any thought of maintaining and upgrading. And whenever there is government money involved in construction, the budget always goes to some projects that they think would make the most PR instead of being actually useful.
    I guess that is the lie at the heart of privatization. It has never been about efficiency. It is about selling government assets to make a specific group of capitalists even richer.


  2. Pete · September 27

    This sounds like the sort of project that should have been completed just before the bubble burst.


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