Rail travel up sharply but occupancy could be higher
KANAZAWA -- The number of people traveling to the Hokuriku region by rail surged in the second half of March, thanks to a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with this city on the Sea of Japan coast in just under two and a half hours.
Tuesday marks a month since service began on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Tourist attractions in the region have seen a rise in visitors. But train occupancy has yet to top 50%, suggesting that more must be done to draw business travelers.
Trains run between Tokyo and here in as little as two hours and 28 minutes. Some 490,000 passengers rode the segment between Joetsumyoko and Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture from March 14 to March 31, up 170% compared with riders a year earlier on Hokuriku-bound limited express trains, according to JR West, which operates the new line jointly with JR East.
Their gains appear to have come at the expense of air carriers. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines flew 27% fewer passengers between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Komatsu, the main airport serving the Kanazawa area, during the two-week period.
Tourist attractions seemed to benefit from the new connection to the capital. Kenrokuen, a famous garden here, recorded an average daily attendance of 43,000 people between April 4 and Sunday -- 16% more than in the past five years. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in neighboring Toyama Prefecture is also expected to be busier.
Bookings for Hokuriku tours leaving from the greater Tokyo area in April to June are up fourfold on the year, according to travel group JTB. Occupancy at the Hotel Nikko Kanazawa climbed 7 percentage points to 76% last month.
Bullet train occupancy between Joetsumyoko and Itoigawa reached just 49% in the second half of March. This was a slight improvement over the 48% seen in the first three days of service on the new line -- a number that JR West President Seiji Manabe called "good" in comparison with the Sanyo Shinkansen running between Osaka and Fukuoka.
But the heavily traveled Tokaido Shinkansen, which links Tokyo and Osaka, boasted 63.5% occupancy during fiscal 2013. Overall, JR East bullet trains achieved 57.2% occupancy that year. Although JR West calculates occupancy somewhat differently, the Hokuriku Shinkansen is clearly lagging other bullet train lines to Tokyo.
The difference seems to lie in the number of weekday passengers. Business travelers make up 60-70% of riders on the Tokaido Shinkansen. The proportion on the Hokuriku line appears to be less.
Companies are expanding in and into the Hokuriku region. Japan Display will build a new LCD factory in Ishikawa Prefecture, in the city of Hakusan just southwest of here. More such investments in the region may help boost occupancy on the new line.