The Himeji Line is a local railway line that stretches from Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture to Niimi City in Okayama Prefecture. This particular line, primarily utilized by local students, has recently drawn attention after JR West disclosed that a section of the line is operating at a loss. As local railway lines throughout the country face financial challenges due to declining birth rates and an aging population, the future of the railway system becomes a topic of concern. To explore fresh possibilities for public transportation beyond the debate of whether to shut down the line or not, a discussion took place involving Tetsuhiro Mifune and Kodai Masaki from the Living Environment Department of Maniwa City in Okayama Prefecture, Kazuki Fukumoto from Fukumoto Taxi, a transportation service provider in the city, and Soma Suzuki, the representative of Spatial Pleasure.
--The recent announcement by JR West regarding the projected losses on 30 local line segments in 2022 has attracted significant attention in the news. Among the lines mentioned is the Hime-Shin Line, but what exactly is the Hime-Shin Line?
Masaki: Currently, the line is primarily used for school commuting, with approximately 90% of its users being high school students. For instance, around half of the students at Katsuyama Prefectural High School, located near Chugoku Katsuyama Station, rely on the Hime-Shin Line for their daily commute. Many students attending local schools such as Katsuyama Junior High School and Maniwa High School also heavily rely on the Hime-Shin Line.
Mifune: Fifty to sixty years ago, the line had a significant number of commuters. However, with the increasing prevalence of private vehicles and the development of road networks, the number of people using the Hime-Shin Line gradually declined.
Fukumoto: I used to live near Chugoku Katsuyama Station, and I vividly recall the considerable number of students using the station. It felt like the station was an essential transportation hub for the local community.
Mifune: To provide an example, at Kuze Station, the nearest station to Maniwa City Hall, there were approximately 180 daily passengers in the fiscal year 2021. At Chugoku Katsuyama Station, the number of passengers was less than 290. According to the school handbook for the 2021 academic year, out of the 431 students at Katsuyama High School, 227 or 52.7% relied on the Hime-Shin Line for their commute. Hence, the passenger count at the station is closely linked to the number of high school students using the line.
--Indeed, the Hime-Shin Line has become a vital infrastructure for students in the region. When it comes to addressing issues such as deficits in the railway system, the involvement of municipalities becomes crucial.
Masaki: The relationship between local governments and railroad lines does not have a one-size-fits-all solution, making it a challenging question of how municipalities should get involved. While it is widely understood that low user numbers alone should not be the sole reason for closing a railway line, there are financial constraints and limitations on what local governments can do. Generally, when the number of users decreases and the financial deficit becomes significant, local residents may express their desire for the line to continue, prompting the municipality to take some form of action.
Fukumoto: From the perspective of the municipal government, we are also responsible for other transportation systems such as buses. It is crucial for us to have a system in place to address problems as they arise, considering the multitude of issues we must prioritize.
Mifune: In the case of the Hime-Shin Line, local efforts are underway to preserve and sustain the line. For example, in December 2022, high school students collected signatures that were submitted to JR West, and Maniwa City is strongly committed to keeping the line operational. In addition to the existing passengers who rely on the line, the railroad holds historical significance as a local asset, and it is important to pass it on to future generations.
Masaki: In reality, expecting the hundreds of students who use the system for their school commutes to switch to buses is not very realistic based on the data. Railways offer greater punctuality compared to buses, and considering the significant number of people traveling within a short timeframe, the advantages of railways are still significant.
--What measures is Maniwa City taking to address the situation where the number of users of the Hime-Shin Line is decreasing?
Masaki: Last year, we organized a marche-like event near the station, where local restaurants and businesses gathered. We also conducted social tours utilizing the Hime-Shin Line. While the Hime-Shin Line is well-known among students and their parents, there are many people who have never ridden the line or are unaware of it in their daily lives. Therefore, our focus is on creating a vibrant atmosphere around the stations to attract people's attention to the Hime-Shin Line and provide opportunities for them to experience the line firsthand.
Mifune: While subsidizing fares and commuter passes may increase the number of passengers, our primary goal is to raise awareness of the Hime-Shin Line among as many people as possible. Through previous events, we have seen an increasing interest in engaging in activities at the station. Therefore, we hope that Maniwa City will not only organize events but also expand initiatives that support the local residents.
Fukumoto: As a transportation operator involved in taxi and city bus services like myself, I see numerous opportunities for collaboration with the Hime-Shin Line. Although the overall number of transportation users is declining, the presence of the station undoubtedly influences people's mobility. During previous events, such as the Marche, we provided bus services that were well-received by many participants. I believe that we can create a synergistic effect in urban development through such collaborations.
--From a data analysis perspective, one advantage is the ability to provide quantitative criteria to determine whether to continue or abandon the line. However, in the case of Maniwa City, there doesn't appear to be a strong call for abandoning the line.
Mifune: Both Maniwa City and JR West are not considering closing the line. We are working together with the communities along the line to explore the future of the Hime-Shin Line in response to the financial challenges. While it is possible that if the deficit continues to grow or if JR West needs to invest substantial subsidies to sustain the line, there may be differing opinions in the future. However, at present, there are not many voices suggesting the elimination of the Hime-Shin Line.
-In terms of data analysis and the utilization of data in the context of public transportation, we believe there is a need to expand the number of indicators and parameters for regional transportation policies in the future. Traditionally, transportation indicators have primarily focused on reducing traffic accidents and congestion. However, there is an increasing emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing accessibility to facilities and resources, improving walkability, and other indicators. Globally, efforts to promote public transportation as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are growing, highlighting the importance of optimizing transportation planning through a diverse range of indicators.
Mifune: I see, it would be fascinating to explore additional discussion points.
-There will be an increasing need to optimize transportation planning by considering the social and environmental benefits of public transportation, not solely relying on simple economic indicators. Particularly for municipalities that can receive substantial subsidies as leading decarbonization regions, visualization through data can contribute in various ways. We are increasingly being requested to assist in quantifying transportation policy evaluation within the context of carbon emissions reduction.
Mifune: Maniwa City has been working towards the creation of a decarbonized city, such as utilizing local resources like woody biomass for renewable energy production. In 2020, the city declared its ambition to become a "Zero Carbon City Maniwa" with virtually zero CO2 emissions, and has been promoting various initiatives. However, since transportation measures were not yet extensively developed, it would be interesting to reevaluate public transportation from a decarbonization perspective. In mountainous areas where car usage is prevalent, envisioning a future where a life with shared mobility and public transportation replaces private cars could lead to a more prosperous lifestyle.
--Even from a global perspective, public transportation-driven urban development is an area gaining attention. For example, if we can quantitatively present potential users based on data, proposals for further development of the Hime-Shin Line can be made.
Masaki: Speaking of data, what specific data could be utilized?
--Firstly, public transportation usage data; secondly, open data held by government agencies such as census data; and thirdly, mobile data captured by mobile devices. However, data usage may be limited due to budget constraints, so open data is often utilized. For instance, when optimizing the operation schedule, it is possible to assess potential needs by considering the distance between residences and the train line, even if we only have data on residents' attributes such as age, gender, and addresses. Combining qualitative interviews with such data can further expand the possibilities.
Mifune: That is intriguing. If Maniwa City is considering the future of the Hime-Shin Line, collaboration is necessary not only with ourselves but also with various stakeholders, including municipalities along the line. Utilizing data to formulate persuasive proposals would indeed be interesting.
--I believe there could be measures to visualize the cultural and historical value of railroads and the civic pride of local people, as Mr. Mifune mentioned earlier. Such efforts are already being made in the research field. Personally, I find it intriguing to have residents create an image map of the community. The image of Maniwa City envisioned by someone like myself, a non-resident, would differ from the image held by Mr. Fukumoto, who has been involved with Maniwa City for many years. Furthermore, the maps drawn by local high school girls would also be distinct. It would be fascinating to explore the positioning of the Hime-Shin Line by examining how it appears in each map. Additionally, organizing the image of Maniwa City and the Hime-Shin Line based on information posted on social media platforms could provide valuable insights. Furthermore, from a data analysis perspective, there may be possibilities to consider the use and coordination of on-demand buses alongside the railway system.
Mifune: However, I feel that there has been a division of roles, with the Hime-Shin Line being solely associated with the railway and buses being seen as separate entities.
Fukumoto: I also believe this is an issue for transportation companies. It is not that we are trying to designate each area as exclusive territory, but it is rare to hear individuals involved in the bus industry discussing the Hime-Shin Line or JR. There seems to be a lack of collaboration between different transportation providers.
Mifune: Indeed, when considering regional transportation with a focus on "moving people," it is crucial for various transportation agencies to work together.
Fukumoto: However, it is not a straightforward matter. In practice, there are often obstacles when attempting to operate on-demand buses, such as costs that are disproportionate to the number of buses and limitations on passenger capacity. The limits become evident due to the decreasing population and the corresponding decrease in transportation users.
--Thank you. Whenever the topic of financial deficits arises, the discussion tends to immediately center around whether to "close or not to close the line." However, I believe this is an issue that should be approached from a more multifaceted perspective.
Fukumoto: I find it to be an interesting situation. If we can present alternative criteria or ways of thinking beyond the simple decision of abolishing the line, it could lead to new projects.
Masaki: When we rely solely on news reports, it often seems like a conflict between railway companies seeking to close down their lines and local governments striving to preserve them for their social value. Deficits are certainly a concern, but in reality, there are likely few individuals who genuinely want to eliminate railroads.
Mifune: Perhaps the problem lies in the majority of people simply not being interested in a regional railroad like the Hime-Shin Line. It is important to cultivate an awareness that the Hime-Shin Line is a regional asset, rather than framing it as a matter of preservation or elimination. The ongoing decarbonization movement may present an opportunity to do so.
Fukumoto: Transportation encompasses more than just getting from one place to another; it should be deeply connected to access to welfare, healthcare, and education. It would be intriguing to witness a movement that reconsiders transportation not only from the perspective of decarbonization but also through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Mifune: People often perceive mountainous areas as car-dependent, but several decades ago, public transportation was widely used. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that people cannot live without cars. Creating opportunities for individuals to contemplate alternative possibilities for their lives and introducing different topics of discussion beyond a car-oriented society could be significant.
Interview conducted by Soma Suzuki (Spatial Pleasure)
Edited and written by Toshihiro Ishigami