The most expensive railway in Japan is the Hokuso Line, which runs for a mere 32.3 km between the Keisei Takasago Station in eastern Tokyo and the Inba Nihon Idai Station in Chiba Prefecture. If you travel from one end of the line to the other it takes 34 minutes and costs ¥870, which comes out to about ¥27 per kilometer.
Of course, many factors go into determining train fares and most of them have to do with the local situation. The main factor is demand, which is why you usually find higher fares in the deep countryside, where the sparse population can’t always support regular railway service. However, the Hokuso Line connects a fairly well-populated section of western Chiba to the capital via the Keisei and Keikyu railways, so why is it so much more expensive that other lines in the area?
Several weeks ago, Chiba Governor Kensaku Morita and the mayors of the municipalities served by the Hokuso Line asked the new land minister, Seiji Maehara, to reduce the fare through subsidies. Morita has already had some success in this area by getting the land ministry to reduce the toll on the Aqualine bridge-tunnel route that connects Kanagawa Prefecture to Chiba Prefecture in fulfillment of a campaign pledge. At present, student commuters on the Hokuso Line are eligible for locally subsidized discounts, but that plan will end in March.
Morita and the mayors want some kind of permanent discount for all patrons, and they think the land ministry should pay for it.
The Hokuso Line is a so-called third sector concern operated by the Chiba New Town Railway, a subsidiary of Keisei, which will use the line as part of the route for its new version of the Narita Skyliner, which debuts next year. The new express will take only 36 minutes to get from Nippori to Narita Airport.
According to various train-geek blogs, the reason for the high fare is essentially bad planning. The Hokuso Line, which is entirely elevated, was originally built to service a residential development project called Chiba New Town. When it was proposed back in the 1960s, the New Town was projected to attract 340,000 people. However, the population of the development area never exceeded 80,000.
Morita has suggested that the reason the development project didn’t succeed is that the fare was set too high. He believes that if the fare is low enough, more people will move into the area and make a thriving community that will put the railway into the black. But by the same token, some people think that once the Keisei limited express, which will follow the same route as the Skyliner, opens, more people will move into the Chiba New Town area because a faster train will be available. (The Skyliner won’t stop anywhere between Nippori and Narita.)
This is a classic chicken-egg conundrum: Hokuso Railway says it can’t reduce the fare unless more people use it, and the local government says they can’t promise more users until the fares are cut. As usual, the national government is called in to solve the problem.