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Why Has It Taken So Long

Author:Author unknown, Issue: May 2002, Topic: Trains

The headlines of the May, 1988 issue of the Alien Times read "'Don't Hold Your Breath' Tsukuba Residents Told, As JR Debates New Joban Line." For a bit of historical perspective, we thought we would run that article once again.

In the early '70's, the original mass transportation plan envisaged a high-speed transit system connecting Tokyo, Tsukuba, and the New Tokyo International Airport at Narita. Planners interviewed by the Alien Times offered two main reasons why this system (which also included a monorail from Tsukuba to Tsuchiura) never materialized. The first "official" explanation blames it all on the Oil Shock, which stymied government-funded projects throughout the country. The other, and probably more significant reason, is political. Merchants in Tsuchiura had a great deal of clout in the prefectural assembly, and they were not at all enthusiastic about any plan which would make it easy for Tsukuba people to whiz directly into Tokyo or beyond and completely bypass Tsuchiura. The government also realized that there was considerable reluctance on the part of the families to leave Tokyo and establish their homes in the new city. If high-speed travel were available, they feared that Tsukuba would only have a commuter population.

Until 1985, local residents had to do most of their shopping in Tsuchiura. Then came Expo '85 which changed all that!

During the preliminary planning for Tsukuba Expo '85, transportation again came under discussion. The Joban Expressway was opened and a temporary train station was added between Arakawaoki and Ushiku with an increase in the number of trains. This arrangement was a substitute for an earlier proposal, which was to have the Japanese National Railroad buy right-of-way to construct a "second Joban Line" which would split off at Toride, pass through Tsukuba, and rejoin the present tracks at Ishioka. Again, commercial and political considerations helped to kill the project, although the enormous expense was a factor even for the government-supported JNR.

For a while, it seemed that the "New Joban Line" idea was completely derailed, but local politicians looking around for new campaign promises, have lately brought it back. Earlier commercial opposition in Tsuchiura has dwindled, and the merger of local towns and villages into the new Tsukuba City has produced new political strength in favor of the rail concept. Discussions have even progressed to such matters as where the line would enter the city and where the stations would be located. Again, commercial and real estate interests would likely supercede public convenience, although it seems certain that any central station would be near the Tsukuba Center Building, the bus terminal and major department stores.

Can we rely on this fresh interest to at last bring rail service to our city? Local political leaders have assured us that we can expect action in the near future. However, railroad planners contacted by the Alien Times warn us that there are major obstacles which mean that rail service is years away, if indeed it materializes at all.

Since JNR has become the private JR, they must plan with shareholder profits in mind. Purchase of right-of-way, a process which alone takes several years, is almost prohibitive due to rising land prices in southern Ibaraki prefecture. Also, JR requires a minimum population of 500,000 people to install a new line, and that leaves Tsukuba (with its 150,000 residents mostly scattered over a huge area rather than concentrated near a potential station site), off the beaten track.

Unless the government provides a major infusion of tax funds and directs private corporations to get "on board", it is likely to be a long, long time indeed before any of us can hop a train from Tsukuba Eki.

In 1988, this is how things looked - not very promising. In fact, a local joke was to refer to the "Joban Shinsen" (New Joban Line) as the "Jodan Shinsen" (the New Joke Line), as it seemed like it would never get off the ground. With construction of "Tsukuba Eki" (Station) and major portions of the rail line well under way, no one is calling it the "Jodan Line" any more. While it remains to be seen if the planned opening in 2005 will be on schedule, given the rapid progress being made now, it looks like a good bet. So, barring any major catastrophe, it will only be a relatively short 3 years until we can "hop a train from Tsukuba Eki."

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