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Japan's bullet train services cut due to few passengers but standard trains roll on

A platform for Tokaido Shinkansen bullet trains is seen almost deserted at JR Tokyo Station on April 25, 2020, the first day of the "Golden Week" holidays amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

TOKYO -- Following the state of emergency declaration in April, the regular shinkansen bullet train timetable had continued to run as normal across Japan. But now the response has changed, with more and more of the high-speed services being canceled as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At the same time, however, conventional trains in the capital region have continued to keep almost the same schedule as before. So what's causing these disparities in services?

From May 28, East Japan Railway Company (JR East) will reduce the number of regular services on the Tohoku, Joetsu and Hokuriku shinkansen lines, as well as some standard trains, by as much as 50%. At a May 12 press conference, JR East President and CEO Yuji Fukasawa said, "Along with a fall in usage we're also seeing persistent ticket cancellations."

From May 11, Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) and the West Japan Railway Company (JR West) have also been cutting train numbers by 20-30% on weekdays on the Tokaido and San-yo Shinkansen lines. On the same day, Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu) on the major southwestern Japan island of the same name has also expanded its cancellations on the Kyushu Shinkansen line which began in April, with only around 70% of regular services currently running.

Even with the spread of the novel coronavirus, there had initially been no huge changes to regular shinkansen timetables. Temporary services usually laid on during the long "Golden Week" holiday period to satisfy increased demand were canceled, but apart from that the timetable had been largely maintained as normal. On April 7, when the state of emergency declaration was called, Fukasawa said at a press conference that changes to the train service were not under consideration.

But by the extended holiday period ending May 6, each of the companies in the JR Group were looking at passenger rates on standard and shinkansen trains that had tumbled to just 5% of what they were at the same time last year. Some shinkansen services were running virtually empty. Under the circumstances, it appeared that there was no need to send employees out to work and increase their chances of infection. From there, each of the companies in turn embarked on cuts to regular shinkansen services.

Even though the state of emergency declaration has been lifted in 39 of Japan's 47 prefectures, the government is continuing to ask people to refrain from traveling across prefectural borders, and each of the railway firms is continuing to run reduced services.

Conversely, despite standard train services also suffering falls in passenger usage rates, both private railway and JR firms have maintained almost unchanged timetables for them in the capital region.

The reason for this is that public transport is considered important for essential workers such as health care workers and police officers. Additionally, the revised special measures against novel influenza and other infectious diseases law stipulates that private railway companies and other transportation firms must provide an appropriate level of service for travel and conveyance of goods. Fukasawa has also said that a review of the timetable for ordinary train services "is not under consideration."

Additionally, if conventional trains are canceled, then it opens up the possibility of crowding on services that are running, and presenting more opportunities for exposure to the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact, which the government says present a much greater risk of infection. Private train operator Tokyu Corp. has also said, "To prevent the three Cs, we are not considering reducing the number of trains under the current situation."

But amid all of this, some companies are moving ahead with cancellations of standard trains, which would be of a limited scope that would avoid greater exposure to the three Cs. From May 9, Keikyu Corp. has stopped some of its services running between Shinagawa Station and Keikyu Kamata Station. Seibu Railway Co. has canceled some weekday services including Red Arrow Limited Express trains that see usage by commuters.

At a regular May 12 press conference, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Kazuyoshi Akaba said regarding railway companies that, "We hope they will continue to fulfill their duty. Cancellations must be decided on appropriately while taking comprehensive consideration of factors including maintenance of a functioning society."

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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