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Friday, Feb. 12, 2010
Skyliner to get quicker but pricier Narita link
Keisei Electric Railway Co. will offer faster, more direct Skyliner rail service between Tokyo's Nippori Station, next to Ueno, and Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture beginning in July.
The Skyliner express trains will run exclusively on what is now the Hokuso Railway line and a new extension from Inba-Nihon-Idai Station to the airport. The entire line will adopt the new name Narita Sky Access. Once the new, and pricier, service starts, the current Keisei Line will no longer have Skyliner runs.
The new service is expected to be a boon for travelers while representing a step forward in Narita's drive to better compete on the world stage, people in the industry say. The nearly straight line will connect Nippori Station to Airport Terminal 2 Station in 36 minutes, compared with the 51 minutes Keisei's current Skyliner takes to travel a more round-about route.
JR Narita Express trains, operated by East Japan Railway Co., run on an even more indirect route between Tokyo Station and Airport Terminal 2 Station, taking 50 minutes.
"The biggest beneficiaries are those who use the Keisei Line regularly," said Akiko Mitsuhashi, a spokeswoman for JTB Corp., the nation's biggest travel agency. "We're not sure if we'll gain any benefit. It won't necessarily increase the number of travelers (to and from Japan), but at least foreign travelers will see that Tokyo is making efforts to counter Narita's bad reputation for access."
Narita has often been criticized for its long distance from the heart of Tokyo, so the new 36-minute travel time will put the airport in decent position to compete with major airports in other countries.
According to a Keisei press release, it takes 16 minutes from Heathrow Airport to downtown London, 29 minutes from Charles de Gaulle Airport to central Paris, 45 minutes from O'Hare International Airport to inner-city Chicago and 50 minutes from Beijing Capital International Airport to the city. This comparison, however, may not mean much because the center of a city is hard to define.
Real estate developer Mori Building Co., which wants to make sure Tokyo is a competitive capital because its earnings come from rent paid by international companies and their employees, welcomes Keisei's plan.
Completing the route was delayed for years while Keisei tried to obtain the cooperation of locals along the route, railway spokesman Toru Tanaka said.
"Residents in and around Narita appear to have finally cooperated with Narita International Airport Corp. to make the airport better," said Yoshimitsu Isoi, director of Mori Building. "Healthy competition between Narita and Haneda airports has begun."
The specter of competition also follows government initiatives to give conveniently located Haneda international routes.
Transport minister Seiji Maehara said in December the government is considering turning Haneda, which for years has basically been for domestic flights only, into a true international airport, spurring competition with Narita, until now effectively the only international hub for Tokyo.
Managers of hotels in the Ueno district meanwhile hope Keisei's Narita Sky Access service, which will essential use Skyliner trains, will bring in more foreign visitors.
"Fifteen minutes is a huge difference," said Rie Uchida, managing director of Ueno Terminal Hotel. "We are hopeful more customers will come."
Ueno has long been a popular hotel venue for foreign tourists because it is the Keisei Line terminal. Ueno is also located near Akihabara, the internationally renowned mecca of "otaku" (geek) culture and electronics, as well as the Asakusa district with its numerous authentic Japanese shops and streets.
The new route, however, will not attract backpackers who put a high premium on low-cost accommodations, according to Sadamasa Sasaki, assistant manager of the Tokyo Backpackers hostel in Minami-Senju, three stations from Ueno on the Hibiya subway line.
People who stay the hostel, which charges ¥2,100 a night, tend to use local Keisei trains. Nonexpress tickets cost ¥1,000 for the roughly 80-minute Nippori-Narita airport run, he said.
Regardless, the new service poses a new threat to Keisei's rival companies.
Narita Sky Access Skyliner tickets will cost ¥2,400 from either Ueno or Nippori stations to either of the two Narita airport stations, compared with ¥1,920 for Skyliner tickets on the current route.
It costs ¥2,740 to take JR Narita Express from Tokyo Station to either of two Narita airport stations. A limousine bus costs ¥3,000 from Tokyo Station to Narita and takes 60 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic.
Ryosuke Kubo, a spokesman for JR East, said his railway is unfazed by the new competitor.
The strength of JR Narita Express is its direct connections between Narita and Omiya, Saitama Prefecture; Yokohama and Ofuna, Kanagawa Prefecture; and Takao in western Tokyo, so passengers living in those areas can get to the airport without changing trains.
Keisei will keep running non-Skyliner trains on the existing route after July, and local service will also be available on the Narita Sky Access line.