Thursday, December 2, 2021

Japan’s famous shinkansen trains desperate for a magic bullet

People who want to travel now prefer to drive in their own cars to avoid human contact.

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Airlines are not the only form of mass-transportation the coronavirus pandemic is laying low; Japan’s world-famous bullet trains are running nearly empty.

A national campaign aimed at enlivening domestic travel is not delivering the hoped-for passenger boost for Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet trains. The campaign offers subsidies of up to 50% on transport, hotels and tourist attractions within Japan.

Such steep discounts combined with the railway companies’ high fixed costs, means shinkansen operators will struggle to return to profitability even after the pandemic is over, Hiroshige Muraoka, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute told Bloomberg.

Some politicians have already labelled the campaign a failure. Others are concerned that promoting tourism will only spread Covid-19 more widely.

Coronavirus case numbers are still increasing, leaving people reluctant to take even short breaks for fear of infection, and many people who do want to travel prefer to drive in their own cars to avoid human contact.

The Tokaido Shinkansen is the high-speed bullet train running between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka. This is the fastest and most comfortable route for passengers travelling between Kyoto, an industrial city and tourist destination, and other major cities in Japan.

In July, international tourists to Kyoto were down 99.8% from a year earlier, and numbers have hovered at close to zero for four consecutive months, while domestic travellers dropped 50%, according to the city’s tourism association.

Yui Muranushi, a 24-year-old geisha who works in Kyoto’s high-end entertainment district, had been planning to visit Tokyo once a week in July by bullet train to perform at events as the nation prepared for the summer Olympics, which have now been delayed until next year.

“Now, all my business in Tokyo has been cancelled,” Muranushi said. “Company executives are no longer visiting tea houses and I’m lucky if I have a single client.”

Despite passengers disappearing, Japan is still introducing new bullet trains intended to roll out for the 2020 Tokyo games. The new trains can reach speeds of 360kph, but will be capped at “just” 285kph for passenger operations. The makers also claim the train is earthquake-proof.

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