December 31, 2007


The Rebirth of Trams: The Promise of Light Railway Transit (LRT)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.64 (December 2007)

The world's first electric tram line opened in Berlin, Germany, in 1881, marking the beginning of a long history of street railways, or tram systems. They became a common fixture in many cities all over the world, valued for their simple installation and safe operation. Japan's first tram system started operation in 1895, and many more were introduced in cities across the country. At its peak, the tram networks had grown to 82 railway companies in 65 cities in Japan, with a total network length of 1,479 kilometers, playing a major role in transporting about 2.6 billion passengers a year.

With the advent of cars, after the peak of tram use, however, the systems began to decline. With buses and subways emerging as more economical and flexible, the operation of trams became impeded by traffic jams, resulting in lower efficiency and service levels. As a result, trams disappeared from almost every city in the world.

The increased number of automobiles brought its own set of various problems to the world's cities: deteriorated city functions, inconvenient travel for the poor and elderly, environmental problems including air pollution, rises in traffic accidents, and the hollowing out of downtowns because of urban sprawl.

Tram systems have undergone revaluation for tackling the problems arising from car-dependent urban development. As a new form of urban transport, light rail transit (LRT) first appeared in Edmonton, Canada, in 1978, and its use as an integrated urban transport system has expanded to many parts of the world, now including over 50 cities in more than 20 countries.

Today, LRT systems are being introduced in many European cities to ease congestion and address environmental problems. Even though tram systems were once in decline, the next generation of LRT tram systems has come back as much more stylish, more efficient, and a more convenient form of transportation. As it is also a comprehensive system, LRT is not only a means of transportation but is ranked as a key element in urban development policy.

Like trams, most LRT systems share space with road traffic, but some can run on underground or elevated railway tracks. The system can accommodate more people than buses and can be introduced at a lower cost than subways. In most cases, LRT is especially convenient for seniors and disabled passengers in wheelchairs because it has the advantage of a fully low-floor design, which allows people to get in and out without stepping up or down.

With the swift development of motorization and the conversion to buses and subways in the late 1960s and early 1970s, tram systems were abolished in Japan as well as other cities around the world. As of the end of April 2006, there were only 19 companies in 17 Japanese cities operating tram systems with a combined rail length of about 205 kilometers, less than one-seventh of the historical tram system's peak.

Despite this environment, the city of Toyama launched Japan's first full-scale LRT system on April 29, 2006. Nicknamed "Portram," it is an innovative system using a good design that people feel comfortable using. The stations, for instance, are sleekly designed to look like sailing masts.

Toyama Light Rail Portram (Japanese only)
LRT Revitalizes Urban Area of Toyama City, Japan

To cope with an aging population and serious environmental problems, Toyama introduced the LRT system as a step to realize its urban policy of shifting from a dispersed, car-oriented city to a compact city with an improved public transportation system.

The Toyama Port Line, operated by Toyama Light Rail Co., a semi-public corporation owned partly by the city, is a new LRT system that uses an existing railway route built by West Japan Railway Co. (JR-West). Trains travel along a 7.6-kilometer section linking 13 stations. While the former service only ran once an hour, this new LRT runs every ten minutes during morning peak hours, every 15 minutes from noon until 8 p.m., and every 30 minutes late at night, drastically improving the level of convenience for citizens.

The company employs a flat fare system of 200 yen (about U.S.$1.6) for adults and 100 yen (about $0.8) for children (elementary students). An IC card named the "passca" is used for commuter tickets and pre-paid tickets (coupons).

It is said that trams are an essential part of city planning for reducing dependence on automobiles. In Japan, however, many tram services are in financial difficulties due to a decrease in the number of passengers. Does Toyama Light Rail face the same problem? Before starting operation, the company set a target of 3,400 passengers per day, based on previous data from West Japan Railway. Although some worried that this was too high, the first-year results turned out to be even better than projected, with an average number of 4,901 passengers per day. Since its start on April 29, 2006, a total of 1.95 million people had used the line by the end of May 2007. The company made a net profit of 2.68 million yen (about $23,000) for the first year (April 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007), easing concerns about a deficit.

Mr. Kazunari Oba, in the company's management planning department, explained the factors that contributed to the success of the LRT service in Toyama. First, the company greatly improved the convenience of its service for passengers. It changed the timetable to provide more frequent service until a later hour, and it made its LRT cars and stations barrier-free. Furthermore, it built some new stations to increase the number of potential users in the areas around them, and conducted a half-price ticket campaign for a limited time to attract new passengers. Second, this LRT service had the support of citizens and local businesses, which helped create a sense of involvement among them. For example, many people contributed to the fund for improving and maintaining the LRT system, and a total of 168 benches in the stations were also funded through donations. Local companies supported the LRT by buying space on the advertising panels in each station and buying the rights to name the new stations. Finally, the entire line was totally designed to give passengers a fun experience.

In recent years, a growing number of LRT systems have been revived or introduced in many cities in the world, especially in Europe and the United States. In Japan, in contrast, Toyama is currently the only city that operates an LRT service. Major obstacles to the introduction of LRT systems include the difficulty in building consensus among parties involved, high initial investment and maintenance costs, and restrictions on space for new LRT systems.

To improve the situation, Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is backing new consensus-based LRT projects through its LRT support program. Under this program, related sections in the ministry work together to provide comprehensive support; thus subsidiary applications submitted to different sections are to be adopted at the same time. Thanks to these efforts, Kyoto and some other cities are now planning or considering the introduction of an LRT system as a means to protect the environment and revitalize communities.

It is hoped that LRT, which is both people- and community-friendly and is effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, will be widely used in Japan following the successful example of the LRT system in Toyama.

(Written by Junko Edahiro)