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JR East, West look to adopt peak-pricing system as pandemic dents Japan railway demand

A train on the JR Yamanote Line is seen in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Both the East and West Japan Railway Co. (JR East and JR West, respectively) have begun examining the possibility of introducing a new, time-based fare system where rush hour times would be made more expensive and other times cheaper.

    The proposal could also serve as a way to encourage people to avoid the infection-conducive "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact settings.

    At a November press conference, JR East President and CEO Yuji Fukasawa expressed his willingness to introduce a fare system with different prices at different times of day that would make less crowded times "off peak," saying, "We don't just want a distinction between normal and commuter passes, we want to do some kind of off-peak service." JR West President and CEO Kazuaki Hasegawa has also said the company is looking into introducing the program.

    The time-based fare system, which applies high prices to busy periods such as the summer Obon and New Year holiday seasons, is widely used in the airline industry, but is rarely employed in the country's railways. But now greater concern is being paid to ways to ease congestion on commuter train services as part of methods to stem the spread of new coronavirus infections.

    If fares are lowered, then it will encourage a change in commuting times. With the shift toward teleworking and other changes, working styles and demand for train services are also undergoing transformation. Given the changes in society, both JR East and JR West have begun to look into introducing the system.

    If implemented, rush hour fares will likely become the most expensive. But could they rise higher than they are now? Although Fukasawa hasn't mentioned a rise in ordinary fare prices, he has said that he would "like to slightly raise" the prices of commuter passes. In exchange, he said the company is looking at introducing a commuter pass which can only be used at off-peak times that would be offered at lower prices than standard commuter passes, and that the firm aims to "establish a zero-sum system within commuter passes."

    But it's not easy to raise prices. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the Railway Business Act dictates that the ceiling for railway fares must be approved by the national government, and that railway operators can decide their fares within the framework provided. Almost all operators set their prices at the highest available level. If prices are to be raised, the caps on them will also have to be changed, and consequently permission will have to be obtained again to do so.

    If the new system really was to go ahead, it would present a number of issues including a necessary change to systems at ticket barriers and machines. It appears that realizing the scheme would take time best measured in years.

    Even at its soonest the system won't apparently be introduced until 2021. However, Fukasawa said, "Demand for rail travel isn't going back to the level it was," suggesting that even if the coronavirus crisis is contained, his company won't change its plan to introduce the system.

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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