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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012
Nation's bullet train blues
The central government has decided to start construction work on three sections of three planned Shinkansen bullet train lines — the Shin Hakodate-Sapporo section of the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line, the Kanazawa-Tsuruga section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line and the Isahaya-Nagasaki section of the Kyushu-Nagasaki Shinkansen Line. The construction of the new Shinkansen sections, whose total cost is estimated at ¥3.01 trillion, could cause problems for the central government, local governments concerned and local residents.
Since the central government and local governments along the planned Shinkansen lines cannot attain tax revenues large enough to cover the construction costs, the government decided to siphon the fees Japan Railway companies pay to the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency for use of Shinkansen tracks owned by the agency.
In an attempt to lower the annual financial burden from construction, it was also decided to prolong the construction period from the originally planned 10 years up to 24 years.
But the possibility cannot be ruled out that the construction costs will rise as time goes by. In fact, the infrastructure and transport ministry's earlier estimate had put total construction costs at ¥2.75 trillion. The central government is supposed to pay ¥70.6 billion every year. But one wonders whether the nation's shaky financial situation will enable the central government to continue to pay that much for up to 24 years.
Local governments along the planned Shinkansen lines hope that if the lines are completed, they may have positive effects on tourism and business, thus helping revitalize local economies. But they should not forget the financial burden they have to shoulder for the construction. There is the possibility that newly opened Shinkansen lines may not attract enough passengers. In addition, local governments must take over traditional train lines running near the planned Shinkansen lines because these lines will be separated from JR companies. This will pose an additional financial burden to local governments. If these lines are separated from JR companies, it is not certain that they can continue to offer sufficient commuting services for local residents as before. Opening new Shinkansen lines does not necessarily paint a rosy future.