The Sanriku Railway Co., a train company beloved in the disaster-hit Tohoku region of Japan because of their cute and nostalgic one-car trains, is making a comeback amid all the financial uncertainty in the area. The Tohoku region was the area most affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, causing an exodus of local residents out of the region, which means less passengers for the already financially-embattled train company. Still, the railway outfit is expected to resume full train services by early April.
Sanriku Railway is viewed by most in the region as a parallel to the struggle in rebuilding lives in the northeastern region of Japan, as the company faces an uphill battle to remain solvent following the catastrophe that claimed close to 16,000 lives and left nearly 3,000 missing in Tohoku. But at the same time, the company can count on the huge support for its company – from train nerds (the densha otaku) who love the idea of a one-car train, to all the people sympathetic to the company mainly because of the popular “Amachan” series aired by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) which featured a Sanriku train operator.
Junichi Konno, chief of the operation section at Sanriku Railway, says that the railway company faces an array of challenges just to survive. There was a time when Konno remembers that number of passengers for the Sanriku trains were so many that the trains worked beyond its capacity at times. Japan’s declining birthrate and the spread of car use has affected the Sanriku trains so much that it has operated in the red since fiscal 1994. And in 2011, the earthquake and tsunami caused a terrible damage to the company’s facilities, mostly in Iwate Prefecture.
According to the company’s books and data, only 500,000 people used the company’s service in 2013, 60 percent less than pre-disaster levels. Sanriku can even count itself lucky, as observers say that the number would be even less had it not been for the NHK drama. “It will be a challenge to keep offering the service, but we want to remain a company that is loved by local people,” Konno said.