A "torokko" train travels over a rail bridge in 2012 in Minami-Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, on the line operated by Minami-Aso Railway Co. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
Local train firms quick to support Kyushu line hit by major quake
The Asahi Shimbun April 29, 2016 by Nobuyuki Takiguchi and Atsushi Hiroshima
The train line operated by Minami-Aso Railway Co., which cuts through the village of that name, was hard-hit by the biggest temblor in the series that started in central Kyushu on April 14.
The April 16 quake trashed many of the scenic spaces the trains traveled through: tracks were covered by landslides, rail bridges were distorted and tunnel walls cracked. A mass of roof tiles fell off Minami-Aso’s Aso-Shimoda-Jo Fureai Onsen Station, where a hot spring facility is located inside the station building.
Although more than 10 days have passed since that jolt, the railway company has not yet been able to determine the entire scope of the damage caused to the line.
“We don’t have any idea when the line can resume services,” a Minami-Aso Railway official said.
Despite the damage, train buffs and local residents were not ready to just give up on the Minami-Aso Railway, as many posts on Twitter showed.
“The Sanriku Railway became a symbol of reconstruction in the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. Can’t we do the same for Minami-Aso Railway?” one user wrote, while another said, “We can’t make it into another Takachiho Railway.”
Damage from the Kumamoto earthquakes in April, such as the landslide that occurred around Tateno Station in Minami-Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, crippled the train line operated by Minami-Aso Railway Co. (Haruki Morishita)
The typhoon in 2005 was even worse for the Takachiho Railway Co. in Miyazaki Prefecture as the company’s rail line was forced to discontinue after a bridge collapsed in the disaster.
A 16-year-old student, who was using the Minami-Aso Railway line to get to his high school, said, “It was a railway that existed before I was born and it’s something we can’t live without.”
Seeing how much trouble the line is facing, regional railways from across Japan have joined hands to assist their Kumamoto ally.
The group consists of: Hitachinaka Seaside Railway Co. in Ibaraki Prefecture, Isumi Railway in Chiba Prefecture, Yuri Kogen Railway in Akita Prefecture and Wakasa Tetsudo KK in Tottori Prefecture.
From April 29, they will be selling a special set of tickets that can be used on the four train lines and Minami-Aso Railway. Each set costs 1,000 yen ($9) and 700 yen of each will be donated to the Kumamoto rail line.
The idea is the brainchild of Chiaki Yoshida, the head of Hitachinaka Seaside Railway. Initially, he wondered if his company had the means to be the sole supporter of a train line in trouble this time around. He sounded out Akira Torizuka, the president of Isumi Railway, which lent a hand to Hitachinaka Seaside Railway when it was hard-hit in the Great East Japan Earthquake five years ago.
The heads of the two remaining railway companies eagerly joined the cause.
“It’s our duty to help out other regional train lines if they’re in trouble,” said Torizuka.
The charity tickets will be available in manned-stations and kiosks on all the train lines participating in the program, aside from Minami-Aso Railway. Yuri Kogen Railway will also be selling the ticket sets online.
Stretching over a distance of 18 kilometers or so, the Minami-Aso Railway line connects the village's Tateno Station with Takamori Station. The line is known for the “torokko” (mine cart) trains with open windows that travel through old forests and over rail bridges towering 60 meters above ground. The operator is based just outside Takamori Station, the only station on the line located outside Minami-Aso.
The train line was originally a regional route operated by Japanese National Railways, but was taken over by the current operator in 1986 when the line was abolished due to the privatization of JNR.
Passengers on the rail line largely comprise travelers and around 240,000 people rode its trains in fiscal 2014.
Forty-five percent of the line’s revenues that fiscal year were made through the tourist torokko trains running on weekends and holidays. The train line is operated by 13 employees.
Regional train lines across Japan have been continuously crippled by natural disasters.
As well as the typhoon spelling the end for the Takachiho Railway, the Sanriku Railway Co. that operates train lines in coastal Iwate Prefecture was devastated in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
One station building was completely washed away by the tsunami. It took three years for the line to resume operations.