Utsunomiya City developing a city with LRT? The first tram in 75 years will open on September 9 at 11:15

LRT = next-generation tram service connecting Utsunomiya City in Tochigi Prefecture and neighboring Haga Town has begun.

It will be the first time in 75 years that a new streetcar will open in Japan. The LRT with all new rails is the first in Japan.

Behind the introduction was an issue common not only to Utsunomiya City but also to regional cities nationwide.

(Utsunomiya Broadcasting Station Reporters Akina Kajiwara, Tomoyuki Homan)

What is "the first new route in 75 years"?

The LRT service has started on the Haga Utsunomiya Light Rail. Starting at the east exit of JR Utsunomiya Station, the line connects a 14.6-kilometer section in 48 minutes to the industrial park of Haga-cho, east of Utsunomiya City, passing by university campuses and stadiums where J.League soccer matches are held.

"A smooth start"

August 8 was the first weekday since the LRT opened.

At the stop of "Utsunomiya Station East Exit" adjacent to the JR station, businessmen and high school students lined up in the morning and boarded brand new cars one after another.

The fare is 28 yen for the first ride and up to 150 yen.

The number of users in the first week increased from 400,1 to 1,1 per day on weekdays, and the management company expects it to be "generally in line with the forecast and a smooth start."

A businessman
who boarded: "I was relieved because I came on time, there was no shaking, and the ride was comfortable" High school student
who boarded: "
I used to commute by bus, but I want to use the LRT because I get to school early."

LRT stands for "Light Rail Transit" in English.

It is said to be a "next-generation streetcar" because it has less vibration and noise than conventional trams, and because it is designed with a low floor and is easy to use even for the elderly and wheelchair users.

Its strength is that it can transport a large number of passengers at once and is not affected by traffic jams.

It has been introduced in many cities in Europe and the United States, and is operated in Toyama City and other cities in Japan.

Is LRT a solution to the challenges of local cities?

Why is the first tram in 75 years opening now?

Behind this was the worries faced by many regional cities.

The challenges facing Utsunomiya City, located in the northern Kanto region, are the declining population and the declining birthrate and aging population.

With the spread of cars, urban areas are spreading to the suburbs, and many of the bus routes connecting them are suffering from deficits.

As a "trump card" to overcome this situation, LRT was introduced over the course of 30 years from its conception.

We decided to aim for "compact urban development" together with new public transportation.

The image of the city envisioned by Utsunomiya City is called a "network-type compact city."

Here, "bases" such as central urban areas, large-scale commercial facilities, high schools, universities, and industrial parks are set up and connected by LRT.

At the same time, we will significantly revise existing bus routes. If the LRT, which has excellent punctuality and can transport a large number of people, plays a role in the "artery" of transportation, the bus route will be in charge of the detailed network around the "base" as a "capillary".

By consolidating urban functions along the LRT lines in this way, the aim is to make it a sustainable city that is easy for everyone to move around, rather than relying only on cars.

Eiichi Sato, Mayor
of Utsunomiya City: "Network-type compact city" is urban development for the next generation that can counter the declining population, and LRT is a necessary device for that. We've been doing business."

But for local bus companies, the opening of the LRT can also lead to competition for passengers.

However, the president of the company that operates the largest number of route buses in Utsunomiya City agrees with the policy of "compact town development" from a long-term perspective.

Mr. Hajime Yoshida, President of Kanto Motors,
said, "It is clear that income will decrease in the short term, but we cannot go anywhere from this area, so our main concern is the development of this area.

The "effect" of LRT was already visible even before the opening

Prior to the opening of the LRT, development of condominiums and residential areas has progressed in the areas along the railway line, and signs of "compact urban development" are beginning to appear.

In the Yuinomori district on the outskirts of Utsunomiya City, people working in the adjacent industrial park and their families moved in one after another, and supermarkets, home centers, clinics, etc. have opened accordingly.

The population of the district continues to grow, and a new elementary school was opened for the first time in 26 years in the city.

Chisato Gyoda, who moved to Japan eight years ago after giving birth, also sends her two children to elementary school.

He hopes that the opening of the LRT will give children more options for their children to go on holiday and places to go on holiday.

Chisato Gyoda, who lives in the Yuinomori area,
said, "I felt that this area would become more and more convenient in a short period of time, but I think it will become even easier to live in the future. I think I'll be able to go to different schools."

The challenge is "safety measures" and "profitability"

On the other hand, there are challenges.

It is the first time a streetcar runs in a town, and what is required more than anything else is safety measures.

At a meeting held by residents along the railway line before the opening to confirm traffic rules, there were many voices of concern about whether children and the elderly would be involved in accidents.

"During this time, a child's shoe got stuck in the groove of the LRT rail and could not move" "
When there is a person who has collapsed on the track, I feel that it is dangerous for the driver to check only visually."

In Tochigi Prefecture, which has the fifth largest number of cars per household in Japan, many people wonder if residents really use LRT.

Utsunomiya City is expected to be profitable from the first year of operation, but there is a persistent criticism that "the deficit is large and it will be a wasteful investment."

Experts familiar with urban public transportation point out that it is necessary to look at it from a long-term perspective, not just by evaluating short-term income and expenditure and performance, but as a precedent for cities across the country that face the same issues.

Professor Kiyoto Utsunomiya of Kansai University:
"For regional cities nationwide that, like Utsunomiya City, are facing issues such as a declining birthrate and aging population and sprawl (urban areas are spreading to the suburbs in a disorderly manner), I think this will be an opportunity for them to realize that they can change the shape of their towns based on public transportation. I think it is necessary to firmly nurture LRT as a tool for urban development that people want to visit."

There is also an extension plan through the central urban area of Utsunomiya.

Utsunomiya City's LRT initiative is not "finished with the opening," but rather "finally stands at the starting line."

The city also plans to extend the LRT line by about 5 kilometers through the city center, with construction work expected to begin in three years.

As a precedent that may be able to overcome the issues of regional cities, such as population decline, declining birthrate and aging population, hollowing out of central urban areas, and a society that relies excessively on cars, I would like to closely monitor the future of "compact urban development" centered on LRT.

Utsunomiya Broadcasting Station reporter
Akina KajiwaraJoined
the station in 2019Tochigi Prefectural Government First ride on the LRT was on the
5th day I went to see a movie on my holiday

Utsunomiya Broadcasting Station Reporter
Tomoyuki HomanJoined
Utsunomiya City
Administration and Police in 2020 The view of the Kinugawa River from the LRT was very beautiful.