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Cities Look to Trams to Ease Congestion and Pollution (October 20, 2005)

An LRV in Kumamoto (PANA)
Trams used to be a common sight throughout Japan. In their heyday, 65 cities had streetcar systems. Beginning in the 1960s, however, many were dismantled as cars, buses, and subways took over as the favored modes of urban transport. Only 17, or about a quarter, of the cities have maintained their tram services. Yet the number of cities served by trams is set to rise. Several cities, mainly in provincial areas, have built or are planning to build next-generation tram systems. The vehicles typically run within central city areas and supplement intercity rail services.

Clean Machines
Streetcars have entered the spotlight again because of the introduction of a new form of tram system known as Light Rail Transit. LRT was first introduced overseas and refers to systems in which Light Rail Vehicles run along the streets, making for a more pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

City planners and engineers say LRVs offer an environmentally friendly way of easing congestion. Researchers at the National Institute for Environmental Studies have calculated that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a tram per passenger per kilometer is only 51% of that emitted by a car. The calculation even includes emissions that occur during the construction and maintenance of tram equipment, such as track and transformers. Similarly, trams emit just 32% as much nitrogen oxide, a major cause of air pollution, as passenger cars.

In 1997 the city of Kumamoto became the first place in Japan to introduce LRVs. The city of Hiroshima, keen to take advantage of the benefits of such systems, has incorporated LRVs into its urban planning. The vehicles run a total of 35 kilometers on track that crisscrosses the city. In 1999, Hiroshima Electric Railway Co. introduced German-made LRVs with low floors to improve access for the elderly, children, and the disabled, and in March 2005 it began operating Japan's first-ever five-car LRVs. The firm plans to introduce nine-car trams in fiscal 2007 (April 2007 to March 2008). It is also considering extending the streetcar tracks into Japan Rail (JR) train stations to make connections easier, as well as expanding its routes.

Meanwhile, LRVs were introduced in the city of Okayama in 2002. Although the system has only 4.7 km of track, the introduction of LRVs has halted a decline in passenger numbers and enabled the tram service to stay in the black.

Encouraged by such success stories, an increasing number of local governments are planning to introduce LRT systems. The city of Toyama hopes to reverse the financial fortunes of the local JR Toyamako Line, which has been running annual deficits in the tens of million of yen, by turning it into a public-private partnership and converting the line to LRT in April 2006. The plan is expected to increase the number of passengers through improvements in service, including the construction of four new stations and reductions in journey times. Journeys that now take 30 to 60 minutes are expected to take a mere 15 minutes using the revamped system.

Other places planning LRT systems include the city of Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, in 2010, and Sakai, a city in southern Osaka Prefecture, whose system is expected to go into operation in 2014.

Two Vehicles in One
The most innovative system will belong to Hokkaido, Japan's vast northern island. JR Hokkaido is developing a dual-mode vehicle (DMV) system featuring converted minibuses that can run on both roads and rails. This is achieved by equipping the vehicles with dual sets of wheels, one set for roads, the other for rail. When the track wheels are not in use, they fold under the minivans' bodies. They reemerge when needed, taking only 10-15 seconds to move into place. The DMVs, which are scheduled to begin operating in the spring of 2007, are designed to adapt to Hokkaido's limited number of power lines by running on diesel fuel when not on tracks. Each two-car DMV tram will be able to carry more than 40 passengers. The system is expected to ease congestion and reduce emissions of global-warming-causing gases by improving the efficiency of mass-transit in the region.

The DMVs will take tourists to destinations in rural areas while also giving commuters living in the suburbs better access to their work places. Although the routes have yet to be finalized, one proposal is for the service to run to the towns of Furano and Biei, famous for their stunning lavender fields. The large numbers of tourists heading to and from these sites are a frequent cause of congestion on local roads.

After a long period in which trams were shunned in favor of other modes of transport, it appears that they are set to become a common sight in many Japanese cities once again.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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