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Summit on ways to utilize unfinished, derelict railways draws fans from across Japan

Tour participants look at bridge piers along the unfinished Imafuku Line in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, on Nov. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenichi Kayahara)

HAMADA, Shimane -- A national conference on ways to utilize the remnants of uncompleted rail lines drew throngs of avid railroad fans to this western Japan city on Nov. 13 and 14.

    This year's "national unfinished railroads summit" was the event's third edition, following its inauguration in the city of Gojo, Nara Prefecture, in 2017, and the second summit in the village of Aka, Fukuoka Prefecture, in 2018.

    On the first day of the conference, six groups from areas across Japan spoke on their community efforts to make creative use of local uncompleted or abandoned rail lines. Some 250 railroad enthusiasts listened to reports on activities surrounding derelict tracks including the Gannichi-Kita Line in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and the Yusubaru Line in the village of Aka.

    The Imafuku Daiichi Tunnel along the uncompleted Imafuku Line is seen in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, on Nov. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenichi Kayahara)

    Among the groups was an incorporated nonprofit organization in Gojo that promotes revitalization of the area along the Goshin Line, which would have connected Gojo and the neighboring city of Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture. The organization's report included an event during which they laid wooden rails on the railbed for toy trains to run on.

    "The elderly people in the depopulating area were glad to see happy children," the group said.

    Muneyuki Kai, the mayor of 2023 summit host Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture, showed off a railroad tunnel that had been converted into a "shochu" liquor cellar.

    One incorporated nonprofit organization tackling revitalization of the former JR Sanko Line, which ran through Shimane and Hiroshima prefectures before being decommissioned in spring 2018, also gave a presentation on its activities.

    In the following panel discussion, six people including a university associate professor gave opinions such as, "To let people know about these activities, frequent updates on their websites are necessary," and, "I want them to provide rental bicycles at stations for better access."

    Shigeaki Fujikawa, right, executive director of an incorporated nonprofit organization in Gojo, Nara Prefecture, delivers a presentation in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, on Nov. 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenichi Kayahara)

    The discussion was joined by Hisashi Yamamoto, the deputy chairman of a group consisting of guides for the Kohin Railroad Imafuku Line, whose construction was commenced twice -- before and after World War II -- to connect the cities of Hamada and Hiroshima but never completed. Yamamoto said, "I'd like to be a guide who can pass down the local residents' expectations for the Imafuku Line and their disappointment at being betrayed twice."

    On the second day, some 80 enthusiasts from inside and outside of Shimane Prefecture joined a tour to see the remnants of the unfinished Imafuku Line. They departed JR Hamada Station by bus and walked around sites on the derelict rail line including bridge piers and a four-arch bridge while eagerly listening to the local guide's explanation.

    Construction of the Imafuku Line began the first time in 1933, to connect Shimoko Station on the former Japanese National Railways' Sanin Line with what was to be the brand new Iwami-Imafuku Station. The section was almost completed, but construction was halted in 1940 due to the Sino-Japanese War. After WWII, another route from Hamada Station was planned and construction began, but it was suspended again due to the national railways' financial woes. Arched bridges and tunnels can still be seen along both uncomplete lines.

    Tour participant Shigeaki Fujikawa, the executive director at the nonprofit organization in Gojo, commented, "With soil and grass paths -- unlike the paved Goshin Line -- the Imafuku Line feels like a relic. Listening to other groups' activities at the summit inspired me and made up my mind to work harder."

    Hiroyoshi Saito, the executive managing director at Takachiho Amaterasu Railway Co., which operates a sightseeing train in Takachiho, said, "Seeing ways to get people to the area, among other things, served as useful references."

    (Japanese original by Kenichi Kayahara, Hamada Local Bureau)

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