The Central Highlands Hokuriku Regions 2
Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 35 (pp.64–69)

Railway Operators in Japan 9
The Central Highlands and Hokuriku Regions

2.Hokuriku Regions
Makoto Aoki


Hokuriku is a small region on the Sea of Japan near the centre of the Japanese archipelago. It has three prefectures: Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui, each comprising some 1% of Japan's area, population and personal income. This explains why Hokuriku is nicknamed ‘the 1% market.’
JR West operates the generally east–west Hokuriku main line while the north–south Takayama Line is operated jointly by JR West and JR Central. JR West runs local services on the Toyama-ko, Himi, Johana, Nanao, North Etsumi and Obama lines.
Private lines are run by Toyama Chiho Railway, Man'yo Line, Kamioka Railway, Hokuriku Railway, Noto Railway, Fukui Railway, etc.
The region can be roughly divided into three districts as follows:
Toyama Prefecture
The prefectural capital is Toyama City (population 325,700 at October 2000) and the other major city is Takaoka (population 172,184 at October 2000) in the west. Both cities are connected to coastal industrial zones. The Chubu Sangaku National Park in the Japanese Alps straddling Toyama, Niigata, Nagano and Gifu prefectures is known for its natural beauty.
The Kaga and Noto districts of Ishikawa Prefecture
The Kaga (southern part of Ishikawa) has the region's major cities including the prefectural capital of Kanazawa. Kanazawa is also a business and cultural centre, and is the largest city in Hokuriku (population 456,438, at 1 October 2000).
The Noto district is hilly with most business centred on forestry and fishing. It has a lower standard of living than in Kaga, and is becoming very depopulated.
Fukui Prefecture
Fukui Prefecture in south-west Hokuriku is divided into two parts, Reihoku (north-east) and Reinan (South-west). Reihoku is characterized by the Fukui Plain where the prefectural capital is located and the Ono Basin. The Sabae, regional city in Fukui Plain, is responsible for some 75% of Japan's production of eyeglass frames.
South-western Fukui (Reinan) is basically uplands dropping suddenly into Wakasa Bay. The isolated coastline has suited construction of several nuclear power stations.

The Hokuriku climate is hot in summer with winter snowfalls of up to several meters in the mountains. Trains in the region can be delayed by heavy snowfalls and the railways have always invested heavily in snow-clearing.

Rail Development

The first line in the Hokuriku region was opened on 10 March 1882. It was built as two separate sections—one from Kanegasaki to the western portal of Yanagase Tunnel and the other from Yanagase to Nagahama. Another section from Nagahama to Maibara in Shiga Prefecture had opened previously as part of the Tokaido main line. The two ends at the western portal of Yanagase Tunnel and Yanagase were joined on 16 April 1884 after completion of the tunnelled section. Railway construction pushed further northeast to Fukui (opened on 15 July 1896), Kanazawa (1 April 1898), and Toyama (20 March 1899). The track was then extended as the Toyama Line and trains began operating to Tomari on 16 April 1910.
New lines were also built from Niigata Prefecture in the east and the Naoetsu–Nadachi section was opened on 1 July 1911. Trains began running all the way from Maibara to Naoetsu after the last section between Omi and Itoigawa was opened on 1 April 1913.
Construction of track known today as the Takayama Line only began in the mid-1920s. The first section from Toyama to Etchu Yatsuo was opened on 1 September 1927. The line was gradually extended, and services along the entire route between Toyama and Gifu started on 25 October 1934.
The first local line in Hokuriku was opened by the private Chuetsu Railway between Fukumitsu and Kuroda in Toyama Prefecture on 4 May 1897. (The station at Kuroda no longer exists but was located near today's Takaoka Station.) The company opened the line northward as far as Himi on 19 September 1912, permitting made passage between Himi through Fukumitsu to Johana.
Nanao Railway opened a line between Tsubata and Nanao on the Noto Peninsula on 24 April 1898. Both the Nanao and Chuetsu railway companies were bought by the government in September 1907 and September 1920, respectively, and the lines are now known as the Nanao, Johana and Himi lines operated by JR West.
The Obama Line along Wakasa Bay was opened between Tsuruga and Shin Maizuru (now called Higashi Maizuru) on 20 December 1922. It is operated today by JR West and links the Hokuriku and San'in main lines.
Several private companies were established in Hokuriku from the 1910s with later mergers between different groups. This trend accelerated in the 1940s and today each of the merged businesses basically serves a single district—Toyama Chiho Railway in Toyama Prefecture; Hokuriku Railway in Ishikawa Prefecture; and Fukui Railway and Keifuku Electric Railway in Fukui Prefecture.
After WWII, JNR constructed various local lines—the Noto Line (61.0-km extension from Anamizu to Takojima, opened 21 September 1964); the 20.3-km Kamioka Line from Inotani to Kamioka (opened 6 October 1966 and Kamioka Railway renamed Oku Hida Onsen-guchi in October 1984); and the 52.5-km Etsumi-hokusen (North Etsumi Line) from Echizen Hanando to Kuzuryuko (opened 15 December 1972).

Map: Railway Lines in Hokuriku Region

Intercity Rail Transport

Intercity tracks serve local traffic between cities in Hokuriku, as well as long-distance traffic from Hokuriku to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
Hokuriku is about 400 km from Tokyo and 200 to 300 km from Nagoya and Osaka. In earlier times, Hokuriku gravitated towards Osaka because it is closer than Tokyo. However, the modern concentration of socio-economic functions in Tokyo has boosted Hokuriku–Tokyo traffic. This is especially true for Toyama Prefecture in the east. Conversely, Fukui Prefecture in the west still has strong ties to Osaka and Nagoya.
The Hokuriku main line links all three prefectural capitals of Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui. Each city has satellites with populations ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 acting as regional centres. Passenger volumes between these cities are quite high with demand mainly from commuters, students, and business people, most of whom travel on local trains. There are also limited-express services running at intervals of about 30 minutes.
High car ownership throughout the region presents railways with an uphill struggle trying to lure people out of their cars for local trips.
However, trains still play an important role in long-distance transport between Hokuriku and Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Rail travel patterns from Hokuriku to Tokyo are basically twofold. To minimize travel time, passengers embarking east of Kanazawa prefer to take the Hokuriku main line and connections east to Echigo Yuzawa and then transfer to a southbound Joetsu Shinkansen. Those west of Kanazawa prefer to take the Hokuriku main line south towards Maibara with a transfer either at Maibara or Nagoya to an eastbound Tokaido Shinkansen.
From Kanazawa, limited expresses offer 17 daily return journeys to either Echigo Yuzawa or Nagaoka on the Joetsu Shinkansen. The fastest services (11 each day) are on the Hakutaka limited express. The shortest time between Kanazawa and Tokyo stations using the Hakutaka and Joetsu Shinkansen is 3 hours 43 minutes.
The fastest travel time from Kanazawa to Tokyo via Maibara and the Tokaido Shinkansen is 4 hours 26 minutes.
Airlines are the strongest competitor in the Hokuriku–Tokyo travel market and Hokuriku has two airports—Komatsu Airport in Komatsu, about 30 km south-west of Kanazawa, and Toyama Airport in the outskirts of Toyama City. The frequent direct flights to Tokyo's Haneda Airport take little more than 1 hour, so flying to Tokyo is somewhat faster than the train even factoring in airport access times. As a result, about 75% of passengers between Kanazawa and Tokyo travel by air. On the other hand, since travel by rail from Toyama (in eastern Hokuriku) to Tokyo takes only 3 hours 12 minutes, rail has 50.9% of this market versus 43.7% for air.
Stiff rail–air competition provides an incentive for both players to offer attractive pricing and services. JR West introduced Series 681 rolling stock for some Hakutaka limited-express services, increasing speeds to a maximum of 160 km/h. In addition, return-ticket holders can make use of free or cheap parking at their departure station and free travel between Tokyo Station and any final destination in Tokyo's 23 central wards.
Travel times were considerably shortened when the 59.5-km Hoku Hoku Line belonging to Hokuetsu Express was opened in 1997 between Saigata and Muika-machi in Niigata Prefecture, creating a shorter route to Tokyo by connecting with the Joetsu Shinkansen at Echigo Yuzawa. JNR actually started the construction in August 1968 but it was suspended in December 1980 as part of the JNR restructuring. Local communities along the proposed route joined forces with the private sector to establish Hokuetsu Express Corporation, which restarted construction. JNR's original plan was upgraded in January 1989 to permit higher speeds. Due to its priority as a high-speed main line linking Tokyo with Hokuriku via the Joetsu district of Niigata Prefecture, the track was electrified and constructed to support operations at 130 km/h. Today, the Hoku Hoku Line supports about 19 daily return local and rapid services (some trains do not cover the entire distance, but many offer direct connections beyond the line end to JR East's Echigo Yuzawa and Naoetsu stations), as well as 11 daily return limited-express services between Hokuriku and Echigo Yuzawa Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen. (Some limited expresses do not stop at any stations on the Hoku Hoku Line.)
The most important rail project now being planned for the region is the Hokuriku Shinkansen described in the first part of this article. However, construction is proceeding at a snail's pace because of declining economic growth and the government's worsening financial situation. Since the Takasaki–Nagano section opened in time for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the plan has run into one obstacle after another. In December 2000, the government agreed that the Nagano–Toyama section should be built to full shinkansen standard and completed within about 10 years. Although the new line would cut travel times to Tokyo and might contribute to regional development, there are many problems about how the construction will be financed and possible closure of conventional parallel lines.
Trains from Hokuriku provide a vital link to Osaka. There are 25 daily return runs by the Thunderbird limited express between Toyama (or Uozu) and Osaka with a fastest travel time of 3 hours 9 minutes. The Raicho limited express links Kanazawa to Osaka with 24 daily return runs.
Limited expresses also link Hokuriku and Nagoya. The Shirasagi offers eight daily return services between Toyama and Nagoya via the Hokuriku main line, while the Kaetsu (seven daily returns) from Kanazawa offers passengers a transfer at Maibara to the Tokaido Shinkansen. The Hida limited express has four daily return services between Toyama and Nagoya on the Takayama Line.

Table: Size and Financial Status of Railways in Hokuriku Region
Table: Passenger Volume and Density by Railway Company
Figure: JR West Rail Passengers in Three Hokuriku Prefectures (FY 1999)
Table: Transportation Modes between Hokuriku and Tokyo
Photo: The Series 681 Hakutaka connects with the Joetsu Shinkansen at Echigo Yuzawa to link Hokuriku with Tokyo.
Photo: Construction of elevated section of Hokuriku Shinkansen in Toyama Prefecture due for completion in 2012

Struggling Local Lines

The high car ownership in Hokuriku is a major cause of low use of public transport. The situation is critical for local railway lines in areas with declining population and some private local lines were abandoned and replaced by bus services in the 1970s and early 1980s.
As part of JNR's restructuring effort in the 1980s, some local lines with average transport densities of less than 4000 passengers were abandoned and replaced by bus services. A few were turned over to public–private joint ventures.
In Hokuriku, the Kamioka Line was turned over to Kamioka Railway in October 1984, which now operates the 19.9-km line from Inotani on the Takayama Line to Oku Hida Onsen-guchi. In another case, the 61.0-km section of the Noto Line between Anamizu and Takojima was transferred to Noto Railway in March 1988. When JR West subsequently electrified the Tsubata–Wakura Onsen section of the Nanao Line, Noto Railway took over the northern 53.5-km Nanao–Wajima section. JR West and Noto Railway both operate trains on the electrified Nanao–Wakura Onsen section (5.1 km).
Noto Railway's track is located in the northern part of the depopulated Noto Peninsula. Falling passenger levels caused the company to abandon the 20.4-km section from Anamizu to Wajima on 1 April 2001 and replace it with a bus service. The prefectural government and local municipalities have supported Noto Railway's operations by subsidizing its various discount ticket schemes.
In Toyama Prefecture, one year after suffering an operating loss of ¥64 million in 2001, Kaetsuno Railway transferred the 12.8-km Man'yo Line from Takaoka to Koshinokata (in Shin Minato City) to the Man'yo Line Corporation, a new public–private business financed by local municipalities and corporations.
In Fukui Prefecture, Keifuku Electric Railway faced a similarly deteriorating situation for many years on its 59.2 km of tracks from Fukui to Mikuni-minato, and from Fukui to the Katsuyama district in the Ono Basin. More seriously, two separate fatal train crashes in 2000 and 2001 caused the then Ministry of Transport to order the company to raise its safety standards. The company responded by suspending operations, and subsequently notified the government that it was abandoning its rail operations. The prefectural government and local municipalities spearheaded establishment of Echizen Railway, a new public–private company and services are scheduled to restart in July 2003.
Toyama Chiho Railway operates 93.2 km of lines to famous tourist spots, such as hot springs at Unazuki and the mountainous region of Tateyama. Even so, ridership is declining and the company's financial situation is poor. This has prompted the company to introduce driver-only local trains and other rationalization schemes.
Fukui Railway operates a 21.4-km line from Fukui to Takefu. It is trying to boost ridership and has involved local municipalities in the formation of a council to discuss ways to revitalize business.
JR West's local lines have also experienced a rapid decline in passenger numbers over the last few years. The company has responded by using unstaffed stations, driver-only trains, and reduced timetables in non-peak hours. For example, in daytime hours, the Toyama-ko Line, which had been operated by three-car EMU train sets, introduced driver-only one- or two-car diesel train sets on March 2001. The number of trains in daytime hours was also reduced from two trains per hour to one train.
Against this backdrop, Advisory Councils for Rail Revitalization have been established in different parts of the region to act as a forum for local communities and railway companies. In addition, the railways have begun organizing events, constructing parking lots at stations for Park and Ride, building new stations, and taking other steps to boost passenger levels.
The 84.3-km Obama Line from Tsuruga to Higashi Maizuru began electrified services on 15 March 2003 and it is hoped that this will encourage more residents to travel by train.
Another plan calls for a change from AC to DC locomotive operations on the Hokuriku main line as far north as Tsuruga. This project is expected to encourage workers and students to commute over a wider area and attract more tourists, thereby boosting ridership.

Figure: Transportation Modes in Toyama & Takaoka, and Kanazawa Urban Areas

Urban Transit

Despite still having tramways, the three regional main cities of Toyama, Takaoka and Fukui face an urgent need to reduce urban rush hour congestion. As an experiment to reduce road traffic and increase access for urban transit, in October and November 2001, Fukui conducted a Transit Mall Trial by reserving some streets in the city centre for pedestrians and public transport only. Toyama has announced a Light Rail Transit (LRT) corridor concept that is an extension of the existing city tramway, connecting the tramway and JR West's Toyama-ko Line to operate through services.
In another development, Hokuriku Railway has recently upgraded services on its 6.8-km Asanogawa Line from Hokutetsu Kanazawa to Uchinada, and on its 15.9-km Ishikawa Line from Nomachi to Kaga Ichinomiya. Improvements include more frequent train services at intervals of 30 minutes during the day, new rolling stock, and better equipment. To facilitate bus–train transfers for better access to central Kanazawa, the company opened a new junction terminal at Nomachi Station on the Ishikawa Line in November 1987. In March 2001, it completed relocation of Hokutetsu Kanazawa Station on the Asanogawa Line to an underground site. A study is now being conducted with a view to developing a new transit system for central Kanazawa.

Photo: Series 8800 of Hokuriku Railway on Asanogawa Line in a Kanagawa suburb. Services are being upgraded with used rolling stock purchased from large private railways.

Railways and Tourism

Japan has many hot springs and a popular leisure activity is visiting a spring with family members, friends and co-workers. Hokuriku has many spa towns including Awara, Yamanaka, Yamashiro, Katayamazu, Wakura and Unazuki, which are visited by people from as far away as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
Many limited expresses stop close to the spas. For example, about 35 limited expresses stop each day at Kaga Onsen Station on the Hokuriku main line. Toyama Chiho Railway runs limited expresses mainly on weekends and holidays to Unazuki Onsen.
The Tateyama range of mountains in eastern Toyama Prefecture is one of Japan's most popular highland tourist areas. Tateyama Kaihatsu Railway was established in April 1952 as a joint venture by Toyama Chiho Railway, Kansai Electric Power and Hokuriku Electric Power to develop tourism. However, the steep terrain and heavy winter snowfalls slowed construction and infighting between the different management groups created one obstacle after another. The line was finally opened as the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in June 1971 as a link between Toyama and Omachi in Nagano Prefecture. The high-elevation route involves transfers from one mode to another, including cable car, bus, ropeway and trolley bus. It offers an excellent opportunity for people to see ptarmigan snow grouse, alpine flowers, and stupendous panoramic views. Because of heavy winter snows, the route is only open from mid-April to late November. The area attracts hordes of tourists and there were over 1 million visitors in 1999. The only trolley bus services in Japan are located here. One is a 6.1-km route from Ogisawa to Kurobe Dam, the other is through a 3.7-km road tunnel under the Tateyama mountains from Murodo to Daikanbo stations. The routes are operated by Kansai Electric Power and Tateyama Kurobe Kanko, respectively.
The electric power company laid its own track through the gorge to facilitate construction of the dam and power plant. Although the line was only for company, the natural beauty of the Kurobe Gorge attracted a growing number of tourists and local communities requested that the line be opened to the public. Today, the passenger rolling stock resembling freight wagons is hauled up the 20.1-km track from Unazuki to Keyakidaira, taking 80 minutes one way. The service is operated from mid-April to November by Kurobe Gorge Railway, a subsidiary of Kansai Electric Power. In fiscal 2000, 1.56 million passengers made the journey.

Photo: The 80-minute ride on the Kurobe Gorge Railway is part of a popular summer day trip for tourists.

Makoto Aoki
Mr Aoki is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Tokyo Keizai University. He has published articles on management of private railways and transportation policy in local cities and holds a Master's degree in business and commerce from Keio University.