The last subway line in Japan

Diorama at the Railway Museum, Saitama, JapanOn December 6, 2015, the Sendai Subway’s Tōzai (East-West) Line opened.   The second line of a provincial Japanese city, this event passed entirely under the radar of the Western media and even Japanese coverage faithfully followed the dulcet tones of the press release (時短 jitan, faster! 楽乗 rakunori, fun to ride!), a few pausing to note that the completion of the line had been delayed by the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake.  Almost all stories approvingly added that the line uses linear motor technology, the meaning of which is so unclear to the average Japanese that it’s regularly confused with magnetic levitation, but which imparts the sheen of futuristic technology so necessary for a large Japanese infrastructure project.  A future this or any other transport technology lacks in Japan, for the Tōzai line is almost certainly the last subway line Japan will ever build.

This seems a bold claim to make, but the Future Railway DB and Wikipedia agree: in the entire archipelago of 126 million, there are neither any new subways under construction nor any even being seriously planned.  Not just subways, mind you; but new railway lines of any kind, with the notable exception of three that we’ll get to later.

Ueno Zoo Monorail, Tokyo, JapanSo does Japan need more lines? Arguably not, and it’s certainly had a good run.  In the 88 years that elapsed from the opening of Tokyo’s Ginza Line in December 1927 to today, 9 Japanese cities drilled, dug and blasted 750 kilometers of mostly-underground subways, with another 6 opting for more exotic options like monorails.  In central Tokyo alone, in the ten years since my first visit in 1997, great big slabs of the Namboku, Ō-Edo and Fukutoshin opened up, not to mention the all-new suburban Rinkai, Nippori-Toneri, Minato Mirai and Yokohama Green lines.

And then the Leviathan of Japanese public works, grown fat from decades of suckling on the teat of the taxpayer, finally ran out of the inertia that had sustained it all the way from the bursting of the Bubble in 1991 to the 2008 financial crisis.   It ground to a shuddering halt and lay still, and even the twin shocks of Abenomics and Tokyo winning the 2020 Olympics, applied to the heap like defibrillator paddles, threw up only airy bubbles of froth with next to no hope of realization.

The reason why Japan is no longer building lines is twinfold:

  1. Japan’s population peaked in 2010 and is set to decline at -0.7%/year, a figure that masks the gaping trench between the more or less stable cities (although even Tokyo will tip into decline in 2020) and the rapidly collapsing countryside, where some districts have already lost over 90% of their peak population.
  2. Japan’s public debt continues to soar into the stratosphere, with this year’s burden projected to hit 246% of GDP.

It’s a simple, crushing equation: ever more debt to pay back, ever less people to pay it.  In Shrinking-Population EconomicsProfessor Matsutani Akihiko of Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies computes that by 2023, Japan’s bill for infrastructure maintenance will exceed its total budget for capital investment.

JR MLX-01 maglev model, Expo 2005, Aichi, JapanMatsutani’s suggested cure is shutting down excess capacity to free up scarce labor, paring back investment, increasing wages and freezing taxes.  Under Abe, Japan has done precisely the opposite, jacking up taxes and encouraging companies to spend, spend, spend on the three prestige rail projects still under way:

  1. In 2016, the first stage of the Hokkaidō Shinkansen bullet train to Hokkaido, Japan’s most rapidly depopulating island, opens at a cost of ¥1.5 trillion (US$12 billion).
  2. By 2022, the Hokuriku Shinkansen will creep down Honshu’s already rattlingly empty Japan Sea coast from Kanazawa to Tsuruga (pop. 68,000) at a cost of ¥700 billion (US$6b), plus another ¥1.4 trillion if they complete the loop back to Kyoto.
  3. Last but certainly not least, the crowning lunacy of them all, the Linear Chūō Shinkansen (there’s that word again!), which is basically 500 kilometres of tunnel duplicating the existing Tokaidō Shinkansen route between Tokyo and Osaka, only lined with superconducting magnets allowing speeds up to 505 km/h and built at a staggering-even-for-Japan cost of ¥9 trillion (US$72 billion).  The line is to be completed by 2045 and hopes to generate a total of ¥5 trillion in profit in the next 50 years, meaning that if all goes according to plan, by 2095 they will have paid back half the construction cost.  Now that is planning for the future.

Toy train, Railway Museum, Saitama, JapanBack in reality, Japan is simultaneously embarking on the equally mammoth task of dismantling its railways; not just the once-extensive rural network, which as elsewhere has been comprehensively obsoleted by cars, but urban transport akin to those recently-built subways.   Over half of Japan’s railways operate at a loss, including virtually all of those serving less than 2000 passengers/km/day, an increasingly unachievable number when ridership has falling faster than the population since 1995.

The first casualty was the Peachliner in 2006, a once-fancy automated line built to service an exurb of a Nagoyan suburb that carried only 6% of the people originally projected (Shinkansen planners, take heed) with operating costs that equalled rebuilding it from scratch every three years.  Next in line may be the Linimo, Japan’s sole operating (slow-speed) maglev line, which stops running when there’s a gust of wind and whose finances, losing ¥1.9 billion/year or nearly $1000 per daily passenger, are on equally shaky ground.

One rural railway managed to resurrect its sagging fortunes for a while by naming a cat as its stationmaster, but the rest won’t be so lucky.  It’s time, long past time, to let the zombies die and invest Japan’s dwindling money and manpower elsewhere.