TOKYO -- A year since its launch, and the Hokkaido Shinkansen, which runs between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations, is struggling with low occupancy rates.
The rate through February was 7 percentage points higher than the previous forecast but still only 33%.
Passenger numbers have plunged with winter, dropping the line's occupancy rate to below the 47% that the Hokuriku Shinkansen got its first year. The Hokuriku Shinkansen runs more or less west from Tokyo.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen's occupancy greatly varies from month to month; the rate hovered from 40% to 48% during the July-September tourist season but fell below 30% in November, then to 19% in January and February.
By contrast, three airlines that have flights between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Hakodate saw their passenger rates during the 11 months from last April to February drop 5% below what they were in the year-earlier period.
The fastest that a bullet train can get passengers between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is four hours and two minutes. This barely eclipses the psychological four-hour barrier under which passengers are said to prefer trains over planes.
To attract passengers in the off-season, Hokkaido Railway, known as JR Hokkaido, plans to start marketing products with one-night stays in Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto before or after business.
"We have not had so many business travelers," President Osamu Shimada said.
Since some trains are only 6% full at night, JR Hokkaido plans to sell special round-trip tickets between Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Shin-Aomori stations for 4,000 yen ($35.92), about 70% cheaper than the normal price -- but only to people who live near the stations.