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Japan's bullet trains face 90% drop in Golden Week passengers

Holiday ridership plummets to worst in over two decades amid outbreak

East Japan Railway's Tohoku shinkansen saw reservations dip 91% during the Golden Week period. (Photo by Konosuke Urata)

TOKYO -- Ridership on Japan's shinkansen bullet trains is poised to plummet 91% for the upcoming Golden Week holiday as people stay home to avoid the novel coronavirus.

Only 350,000 seats have been reserved for the period between April 24 and May 6, the six Japan Railway group passenger train companies said Tuesday. This span includes the five-day Golden Week break starting May 2.

This marks the poorest showing since comparable records started being kept in 1997. The steep loss of passengers will dent the finances of the rail operators.

Central Japan Railway, which operates the Tokaido shinkansen connecting Tokyo and Osaka, reported a 91% drop in bookings for shinkansen and limited express trains. Only 180,000 bullet train seats were reserved, or 4% of the 4.61 million seats available, despite a 1% reduction in the total number of seats through a partial suspension of Nozomi service, the fastest shinkansen option on that line.

JR Central says it does not know at this time how bookings will look like in the future.

"We can't predict the scale of the effect [of the novel coronavirus] or when it will be controlled," said a company representative.

East Japan Railway, serving the Tokyo area, says seat reservations for bullet trains will plunge 91% during the Golden Week period. The percentage of seats booked on the Hokkaido shinkansen, operated by Hokkaido Railway, tumbled 28.5 points to 3.6%, a record low.

For Osaka's West Japan Railway, the Sanyo shinkansen connecting the city with Fukuoka only secured 8% of the reservations from a year earlier -- 90,000 seats. The Kyushu shinkansen, which continues further south from Fukuoka to Kagoshima, drew bookings for 20,000 seats, or just 11% of the performance a year earlier.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a last week applicable to Tokyo and six prefectures stretching to Fukuoka. The measures include requests for citizens to refrain from non-essential travel.

In response to declining passenger numbers, JR rail operators cut the number of bullet train and limited express seats available for reservation 10% to 11.06 million. Despite that move, only 470,000 seats were booked.

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