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Streetcars Return to Japan's Cities

January 14, 1998

Street cars should become a more common sight in the coming years. (Photo: Kumamoto City Transportation Bureau)

They have zero emissions, and are easy to use for all members of society. With environmental and welfare issues in the spotlight as seldom before, Japan is reappraising and reviving the streetcar. And as lines are far cheaper to build than metros and other high-tech transit systems, there are high hopes that streetcars will help reinvigorate provincial cities.

Eco-Friendly Transit
In Japan, there are 5 public and 15 private operators of streetcars in 19 cities, and some 240 kilometers of lines. The first Japanese streetcar appeared in Kyoto in 1895. In their heyday in and around the 1940s they were trundling along some 1,500 kilometers of steel in 65 cities. Now, with the scale of streetcar operations diminished by over two-thirds from this peak, and total track length by over five-sixths, plans for new lines and extensions have recently been popping up on drawing boards across the country.

In Okayama, one of the hub cities in western Honshu, there are plans to make the current 4.7-kilometer line into a loop by adding 2.3 kilometers of track. The vital impetus came when some 300 streetcar lobbyists, city administrators, and others held a "streetcar summit" in May 1997. And during fiscal 1997 (April 1997 to March 1998), the city of Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture plans to start extending its streetcar lines with Ministry of Construction subsidies, while several other cities are considering proposals for new lines and extensions. In Kyoto too, where the lines were scrapped 19 years ago, there has recently been mounting citizen pressure for a revival of streetcars.

Riding the Light-Rail Boom
Underlying this comeback has been the development and appearance in Western countries of light rail transit systems, a mass-transit hybrid somewhere between a streetcar and a train in which the units have very low floors and high technical performance. German-built rolling stock put into operation by Kumamoto City in Kyushu in August 1997 has a floor level only 36 centimeters above the track, less than half the normal gap. And because the alighting area is only 30 centimeters off the ground, the gap between it and the 18-centimeter-high platform is only 12 centimeters, making it easy to get on and off the cars. It has also won plaudits for the rubber pads built into the wheels, which reduce noise and vibration and make for a comfortable ride for the handicapped and the aged.

A railway company in Hiroshima Prefecture in western Japan, which claims the highest rates of streetcar use in the country, plans to bring in four-car LRT units during fiscal 1998. And a panel has been put to work researching LRT systems with a view to their introduction in Tokyo. Although the capital now only has one route, compared with the 41 municipally run lines of the heyday of streetcars, it plans studies for new lines in several selected districts in fiscal 1998.

Energy, Environmental Benefits
Deemed an impediment to the rapidly growing number of cars on the road, streetcars began to fall by the wayside as subways and other urban mass-transit systems were developed. Ironically, cars and other motorized vehicles, which are bringing cities to a standstill, are also the reason for their recent renaissance. In addition to concerns that exhaust emissions cause atmospheric pollution, global warming, and other damage to the environment, traffic jams and accident rates that only get worse show that motorized society is now beset with problems.

Another attraction of streetcars has been receiving more attention lately--their user-friendliness. Unlike subways or elevated monorails, these street-level systems have no staircases to present an obstacle to elderly or handicapped passengers. And with construction of 1 kilometer of lines costing 1-2 billion yen (7.7-15.4 million U.S. dollars at a rate of 130 yen to the dollar), streetcars look a far better bet financially than subways, which cost 30 billion yen (230 million dollars) a kilometer, or high-tech transit systems with their price tag of around 10 billion yen (77 million dollars).

One reason why Western countries began to look anew at the streetcar in the 1970s was the need to save energy. The other advantages--its environment-friendliness, and its low floors and smooth rides for ease of use by passengers like parents with small children--helped give momentum to its revival. In Europe, many urban authorities are working streetcar lines into development blueprints, and are making arrangements for big edge-of-town interchanges where drivers can park and ride downtown on streetcars.

Japan's Construction Ministry is including resurfacing of roads so that streetcars can run on them in its fiscal 1997 top-priority policies, and has decided to subsidize line building and extensions. But it will be essential to get commuters to leave their cars at home, and the public to cooperate generally, if the streetcar is to become a fixture. The degree of social acceptance will likely determine how far into Japan's towns and cities the new rails penetrate.

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Trends in 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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