August 28, 2014 5:46 am JST

New bullet train line: high-caliber competition for air carriers

See you on March 14: JR East's Tetsuro Tomita, left, and JR West Director Akihiro Horisaka set the date for the start of service.

TOKYO -- Two Japanese railway operators said Wednesday they will start service on a long-awaited extension of the nation's bullet train network next March, a change that will reshape travel from the capital to an area now served mostly by planes.

     East Japan Railway and West Japan Railway's Hokuriku Shinkansen will shorten the train ride between Tokyo and Kanazawa, a city on the opposite side of Japan, by more than an hour. JR East and JR West will jointly operate the new line.

     Until now, the fastest way there by rail has been taking the bullet train as far as Niigata Prefecture, then transferring to a limited express train -- in all, a nearly four-hour trip. The new stretch of bullet train track will cut this to two hours and 28 minutes.

     Passengers going to Toyama, another city in the region known as Hokuriku, will be able to get there in two hours and eight minutes, about an hour quicker. Of the three service patterns available, "Kagayaki" will stop the fewest times between Tokyo and Kanazawa, making 10 round-trips per day.

When bullets fly

Airlines will face a potent new challenge to their share of travel between Tokyo and Kanazawa, now at a comfortable 64%. JR East President Tetsuro Tomita predicts the bullet train will eventually capture an 80% share.

     A previous extension of the bullet train network killed off two domestic air routes from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The Hokuriku Shinkansen could prompt airlines to reduce service from Haneda to Komatsu, the closest airport to Kanazawa, and to other airports in the Hokuriku region.

     But airlines will try to fight back by touting the ease of connecting to flights abroad from Haneda, which stands poised for further expansion of international traffic. All Nippon Airways says it will pore over the forthcoming Hokuriku Shinkansen schedule to look for ways to counter railway operators.

A tectonic shift in the economic landscape?

While the Hokuriku economy's ties with the greater Osaka area run deep, linking up to the bullet train network could pull it closer to the Tokyo megalopolis.

    In a sign of what may be more corporate moves to come, YKK Group, known for its zippers, plans to relocate 230 employees now working in the Tokyo area to its manufacturing base in the Toyama Prefecture city of Kurobe by the time the new line opens.

     "Once the shinkansen is completed, Toyama and the capital region will come within day-trip range," says Chairman Tadahiro Yoshida.

(Nikkei)

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