OFUNATO, Iwate Prefecture–A railway in a quake-devastated coastal area partly resumed operations on April 3 for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake two years ago, carrying excited passengers who won a lottery to ride the inaugural train.
The South Rias Line, operated by Sanriku Railway Co., has been out of service since the earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.
It resumed operations on a 21.6-kilometer section between Sakari and Yoshihama stations, both in Ofutano, on April 3.
The resumption marks the first time railway service has been restored in the southern coastal area of Iwate Prefecture, heavily damaged in the disaster.
Sanriku Railway plans to resume full service on the line next spring.
“I hope tourists and other visitors from outside the region will increase,” said Masahiko Mochizuki, president of Sanriku Railway. “But it is not easy to secure passengers as interest in the quake-hit region is waning.”
On April 3, many people crowded Sakari Station, the departure point for the South Rias Line. About 150 passengers who won the lottery to be the first riders climbed aboard.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the landscape from the train window,” said Reiko Chiba, a 73-year-old resident of Ofunato and one of the lucky passengers selected in the draw, before she boarded the train. “I’ve already gotten excited.”
The first three-car train left the station at 9:48 a.m. with many people bidding it a warm farewell.
At Yoshihama Station, the final destination, a commemoration ceremony took place that day. Local residents and other parties celebrated the restoration of service.
On April 3, a free special train shuttled between the two stations three times. Sanriku Railway will begin its normal service on April 4, and the train is to run seven times a day.
Sanriku Railway operated a 107.6-km track in Iwate Prefecture, comprising two lines: the 71-km North Rias Line, which links Miyako and Kuji, and the 36.6-km South Rias Line, which connects Ofunato and Kamaishi.
The earthquake and tsunami devastated 317 bridges, tracks and stations, taking both lines out of service.
The North Rias Line, damaged mainly by tsunami, resumed its service on 85 percent of its track by April 2012. But bridges and tracks of the South Rias Line were ravaged by both tsunami and earthquake, taking more time to restart the service.
Sanriku Railway plans to resume services on the remaining 10.5-km section between Tanohata and Omoto stations on the North Rias Line as well as the 15-km section between Yoshihama and Kamaishi stations on the South Rias Line in April 2014.
But of rail lines along the tsunami-damaged coastal region, services are still suspended over 270 kilometers on eight lines operated by Sanriku Railway and East Japan Railway Co.
It is still unclear when the JR Yamada Line, which links Sanriku Railway’s South and North Rias lines, will be restored.
Cost to restore both lines is estimated at 10.8 billion yen ($115 million). The entire cost will be covered by the central government because Sanriku Railway has been in the red.
When Sanriku Railway started its service in 1984, the number of annual passengers was 2.68 million. But ridership dropped to 850,000 in fiscal 2010.
(This article was written by Kazumasa Sugimura and Tomoaki Ito.)
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN