The Iwaizumi line, a spur which runs for 38km and nine stations up the rugged middle of Iwate prefecture in Northeastern Japan, from the hinterland of the fish city of Miyako, mauled by the tsunami, to the cow town of Iwaizumi, whose 10,400 residents are spread out across a territory of 992km2, half as large again as Tokyo’s 23 wards, with their nine million residents, is notorious—at least among observers of these phenomena—for being the least trafficked line in the whole nation, with average daily ridership per kilometer of 46 people in fiscal 2009, one 23,000th the ridership density of the Yamanote loop line in central Tokyo. Half of it was built during World War II, prompted by military demand for clay for flame-resistant brick for industrial purposes, but it was not completed until February 6, 1972, an astoundingly late date and one by when the demographic future of Iwaizumi, then home to some 21,000 people, was already on the wall, as scrutiny of the photo below of Iwaizumi station on opening day (and also in 2003) might suggest.
The line, up and down which three trains a day trundle, led for many years a charmed life: it was targeted for the axe at the privatization of Japanese National Railways in 1987, just 15 years after completion, but escaped because the road that runs more or less parallel with it and is the only route into Iwaizumi from the south is not wide enough in many places for two cars to pass and is treacherous in winter. East Japan Railways (JR East), which inherited the line post-privatization, tried again to get rid of it in 1996, but was rebuffed. Then, on Saturday July 31, 2010, at 07:33, disaster struck. Loosened by hours of torrential rain, rocks had fallen at the end of a tunnel 24km up the line, and into them the single-carriage northbound morning train ploughed and derailed.
Most accounts say there were seven passengers and two crew—astoundingly the line was never converted to driver-only operation—on board at the time, although my fourth-hand sources tell me that at a recent presentation, JR East asserted that there were only three passengers, and all of them were train-spotters. The Japan Times reported the incident the next day thus:
A 63-year-old man suffered a graze, while a 48-year-old man badly hit his shoulder and leg, the officials said. Another passenger who felt ill and the 28-year-old driver, whose back was slightly injured, were sent to a hospital.
Naturally, the derailment featured prominently on the national evening news broadcasts and in the pages of the national press the next day. “Naturally,” I hear you scoff, “a derailment in which four people were slightly injured on a railway line of no consequence in Iwate, so far from the centers of power, why the media hype?” Well, Saturday is a slow news day and Japan is a slow news society, it is true, but let’s take a little detour to explain the prominence afforded the derailment.
You could do worse, in attempting to explain much of what happens in modern Japan—and nearly everything that doesn’t—and by extension Korea and China, than by holding the event up to the light shone by five interlocking words, all of which share a common character: anzen(sei), (安全[性], safety), anshin (安心, peace of mind), antei (安定, stability), fuantei (不安定, instability), and fuan (不安, unease). Safety is an integral component of stability, which leads to peace of mind. Its absence leads to instability and hence to unease. These words exist like the parallel strings of a guitar: a single string can be plucked or several can be strummed at once. The Iwaizumi derailment was a clear violation of the prescription of anzensei, safety, and an infringement of anshin, peace of mind, not only of the injured but of the townsfolk of Iwaizumi, engendering in them fuan, unease, that the derailment would be consequential enough to knock the line out of commission, with the antei, stability, of the “natural” order of things, replaced by the fuantei, instability, of change–even though a replacement bus service running the length of the line was inaugurated just two days after the derailment.
On March 30 this year, JR East held a press conference at which it formally announced plans to axe the Iwaizumi line. The accompanying briefing materials, available in Japanese here and in sadly truncated English here, make for astonishing reading. Passenger numbers, never elevated to begin with, have fallen to a quarter of the level they were at in 1987 at privatization. In fiscal 2009, the line generated Y8mn (about $100,000) in revenue, not appreciably more than the annual income of a family of four (about Y6mn), yet cost Y265mn (about $3mn) to run in operating expenses, resulting in an operating loss of Y257mn, so the line loses Y32 for every Y1 it takes in. The report identifies 23 places along the line where rockfalls are possible, a further 88 where rockslides are possible, and puts the cost of ensuring the safety of the line and the safe running of trains—those words again—at Y13bn (about $150mn), mostly through the time-honored method of spraying concrete on rockfaces. To put that cost into perspective, assume that every last yen the line generates could be hypothecated to payment of the construction bill—which it cannot—and that revenues will remain static—which they will not—then it would take 1,625 years, or until around the year 3637, for the bill to be paid, or roughly a thousand years after the last inhabitant of Iwaizumi, at the current population rate to halve, pops his or her geta.
It is in many ways a marvel that something as gloriously, anarchically, emphatically antithetical to the rules of economics and the regimen of the bean-counters as the Iwaizumi line should have staggered on for as long as it has. If it is indeed axed, it will be an epochal event, marking the first closure of any JR East line since privatization and potentially opening the floodgates to other closures—of JR East’s 67 conventional, non-shinkansen lines, just 16 were profitable in fiscal 2007. The language of the briefing materials, though, is apologetic, not defiant, for the company must know that it has a fight on its hands. The Mainichi Shimbun, a national newspaper, reported on the closure the day following the press conference, in an article wholly sympathetic to the defenders of the line, under the headline, JR Iwaizumi line to be axed, users despair. After briefly recounting the history of the saga, it turned to the locals:
Users and related parties have been voicing their discontent and despair about the plans to axe the line. Shunya Kawamura (17), who took the line to get to Iwaizumi High School, said, “I’m using the bus replacement service, but there are lots of corners on the highway and I get carsick.” Most of the users of the line are Iwaizumi High School students or the elderly visiting hospitals in Miyako. It was reported that, at a residents’ rally in Iwaizumi in January, some older people said that being shaken around in a bus without toilets made them feel awful. The Hotel Ryusendo Aisan, which takes in about 3,000 railway fans and other tourists a year, has been hit hard by the disappearance of tours since the accident. Hotel boss Sadaji Nakamura warned that, “If the railway is wiped from the map, the town will gradually lose its appeal as a tourist attraction.”
As an unsentimental friend who shares my fascination with the tale snorted on reading this, “JR East could lay on a fleet of luxury coaches, hand out free motion-sickness pills, hire a troupe of can-can dancers to entertain the passengers, and still come out ahead!”
Still, a cleanly professional website to defend the line has been set up and inundated with messages of support, petitions have been organized, rallies have been held—the one mentioned above and pictured below attracted some 900 folk—and cakes no doubt have been baked.
On May 10, the Iwate Nippo reports, the deputy governor of Iwate and the mayors of Miyako and Iwaizumi lobbied the deputy president of JR East for the swift and complete restoration of the line and then met with the vice minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport to request that the ministry “guide” and “advise” (read: browbeat and coerce) JR East into seeing the error of its senseless thrift, to which the vice minister’s guardedly noncommittal response was to acknowledge the importance of the line while stating the need for the local authorities and JR East to talk fully to each other and search for a resolution. Conjecture it can only be at this stage, but there may be as good as an even chance that JR East can be cajoled into spending the $150mn and saving the line.
All of this fascinates but does not surprise: the love for local, loss-making lines, a fiercely nostalgic love for a past that never existed but which is no less a valid love for all that, flames in inverse correlation with the economic utility of the line. I have never had, and may never have, the pleasure of the Iwaizumi line’s acquaintance, but during the spring Golden Week vacation last year, I rode—both ways—the Tadami line, which runs 135km from Aizu Wakamatsu in western Fukushima through snow country to Koide in Niigata, which itself was only completed in 1971, and which, if the Iwaizumi line is axed, will be crowned with the twin titles of the least trafficked and most money-losing line in the empire of JR East—and just in time I was too, for torrential rain three months later swept away bridges and services have still not been fully restored. Although no commemorative run, just a regular scheduled train, it was packed with rail buffs achatter with excitement, and along the rail-side banks were dotted throngs of hobbyist photographers who vied for the best shots. Truly, madly, deeply, Japan is geek heaven.
(With thanks to A.P. for the additional reporting)