NAKAGAWA, HOKKAIDO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Local governments of towns along the nation's northernmost railway are hoping to keep the line in business by introducing "cycle trains" on which passengers can board with their bicycles fully assembled and ready to ride.
The about 259km JR Soya Line from Asahikawa to Wakkanai in Hokkaido has seen fewer passengers and negative earnings, putting its future in doubt. The new initiative aims to harness the growing cycling craze to boost the railway's image as a tourist line and attract cyclists from both inside and outside Japan.
Several local governments established a council on Wednesday (Aug 23) to ask operator Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) to introduce the idea.
The Soya Line runs through the forests and plains of nature-rich northern Hokkaido, where tourists have increasingly flocked in recent years to enjoy canoeing the Teshiogawa river and trekking, as well as cycling.
Last autumn, the Nakagawa town government organised a cycling tour that attracted about 20 participants from regions including Taiwan. The tour earned good reviews, according to a town official.
The council consists of the town government, the Asahikawa and Wakkanai city governments and others. Members plan to cooperate to establish bike roads, organise tours and lay the groundwork for attracting more cyclists.
JR Hokkaido passenger regulations stipulate that passengers must take apart or fold their bicycles and put them in a bike bag before carrying them onto a train. If the cycle train initiative is realised, passengers will be able to board the train with bicycles in a ready-to-ride state.
JR Hokkaido's poor business performance drove the company to announce in November 2016 that 13 sections of 10 railways it was operating in the red - a total of 1,237.2km - were "difficult to maintain" and would require reforms that could include scrapping them.
For the Soya Line, the company is hoping to adopt a scheme in which it will turn over stations and railways to local governments and only be in charge of train operations. However, 26 municipalities in the area have requested the railway be maintained under the current system.
"If the new scheme is introduced, local governments will bear more of a burden. We'll have to work all the harder to develop ideas to encourage demand (among potential users)," said a person involved with one of the local governments.
"We definitely want cycle trains to be introduced because they'll likely attract overseas visitors."
In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, an official of JR Hokkaido's public relations department said the company intends to consider the idea, adding that safety measures are essential to prevent such accidents as a bike falling over in the event of an emergency stop.
SERVICE TAKING HOLD
According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the number of railway operators that have launched cycle train operations is increasing amid the bike boom.
West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) began operating a tourist train that targets cyclists in April last year. This summer, the train has been mainly operated on the Okayama to Onomichi section of the Sanyo Line, and the Okayama to Takamatsu section of the Seto-Ohashi Line.
The two-car trains have enough space for cyclists to board with their bikes.
Onomichi is the starting point of the Shimanami Kaido cycling course, which draws cyclists from across the nation and overseas. The Onomichi-bound train from Okayama is especially popular and often boarded by foreign travellers.
Since 1998, a cycle train has been in regular service on most sections of the Yoro Railway Line, which connects Gifu and Mie prefectures. It has become popular not only with tourists but also locals who use it for commuting, shopping and hospital visits.
A cycle train also began running on the Chichibu Railway between Hagure and Mitsumineguchi in Saitama Prefecture in 2009. Passengers take roughly 600 to 700 bikes aboard each year, according to the railway operator.