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Thousands of unmanned train stations in Japan raise concerns for disabled people

A visually impaired passenger is seen waiting for a train at the unmanned JR Yamamae Station in the city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Igarashi)
A visually impaired passenger is seen walking with a white cane at the unmanned JR Yamamae Station in the city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Igarashi)

TOKYO -- Close to half of Japan's train stations were unmanned in 2019, including about 10% of the stations in Tokyo and Osaka Prefecture, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

    The percentage of stations without workers on hand throughout the day tends to be higher in rural areas, but it also came to light that unmanned stations are growing in number in urban areas where there are more users. This could have an effect on the daily lives of people with disabilities, who need support to get on and off trains. The Japanese government is planning to formulate guidelines determining how railroad companies should address the issue.

    The figures mark the first time the ministry has revealed data on stations without workers by prefecture. There were 9,465 train stations across country as of the end of fiscal 2019, and 48.2% of them, or 4,564, operated without a single station staff member. While the number of overall train stations in Japan decreased by 49 from the end of fiscal 2001, the number of unmanned stations grew by 444 -- increasing the percentage of such stations in the country by 5 points over 18 years. The figures indicate that the ratio of stations without workers has increased nationwide.

    Kochi Prefecture had the highest ratio of unmanned stations, at 93.5%, with 159 of its 170 stations having no workers on hand. It was the only prefecture in Japan surpassing 90%. The percentage of stations without workers is fairly low in the Kanto and Kansai regions in east and west Japan, respectively. Still, 9.9% of stations in Tokyo, which is the most populated prefecture in Japan, and 16% in both Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures, which respectively are the second and third most populated, were unmanned. All 19 stations in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, where only monorails run, had workers.

    The reduction in manned stations stems from worsening business performance among railroad companies as the number of train users drops in tandem with Japan's population decline. Stations in rural areas that are seeing significant population declines are particularly under pressure to streamline their operations.

    The Diet has called for the establishment of guidelines for railroad companies on the issue. The House of Councillors provided examples of stipulations to be included in the guidelines in a supplementary resolution when the revised transportation accessibility law was enacted in May. These included the permanent placement of caregivers for disabled people who need assistance and the preparation of platforms that enable people with disabilities who do not need help to get on and off trains by themselves.

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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