After years of waiting, the people of the "Snow Country" west of the Japan Alps and the rice farmers of northeast Japan have finally gained a cherished--and expensive--railroad link with the heart of Japan.
A short but crucial section of "bullet train" track opened last week between Tokyo's Ueno Station and the suburban city of Omiya, the terminus of the lines to the two regions. Completion of the 17-mile segment brought the key regional cities of Niigata, with 459,000 people on the Sea of Japan 206 miles from Tokyo, and Sendai, with 663,000 people on the Pacific coast 218 miles northeast of Tokyo, within less than two hours' travel time of Tokyo.
The two lines to Omiya from the two regions opened in 1982. However, because of protests from residents fearful of train noise along the proposed Ueno-Omiya segment, it remained incomplete until now. Passengers had to spend up to 50 minutes on a shuttle line to Omiya, where they boarded the bullet trains
High Cost Per Mile
Construction of the $2.6-billion Ueno-Omiya segment started in November, 1971, and was originally scheduled to be completed in 1976. Its average cost per mile was $153 million, the highest in Japan's history.
The cost excludes a separate commuter line running parallel to the Ueno-Omiya bullet line as "compensation" to residents in the area. That line still has not been completed and final cost estimates are unavailable.
Celebrations and ceremonies were held Thursday at all stations along both lines, and passengers seemed pleased at no longer having to transfer.
A 23-year-old Tokyo secretary said she was taking the day off for a one-day skiing trip to Niigata prefecture. A Tokyo printing company executive, however, said he fears that his Sendai customers will demand that he visit them more often now that round trips have been shortened by 90 minutes.
Opening of the key segment promises major benefits for 24 cities served by the two bullet lines. Only three airports are located near those cities.
Tokyo Central Station
Even with Thursday's opening of the Ueno-Omiya segment, the original plan for the two bullet lines remains incomplete. That plan called for the two lines to start from Tokyo Central Station, where the original bullet line, opened in 1964, begins its route southwest to Osaka and Fukuoka.
Although it is half-completed, construction of the 2.25-mile segment from Ueno to Tokyo has been put off indefinitely and may be delayed for as much as 10 years because of the financial condition of Japan National Railways. Its construction cost is estimated at $480 million--which, at $213.3 million a mile, would surpass the Ueno-Omiya link Japan's most costly rail segment.