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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Railroad a Locomotive for Economic Growth in Tokyo Suburbs

Launched in 2005, the Tsukuba Express Has Exceeded Ridership Estimates
and Sparked Transit-Oriented Development

By Richard P. Greenfield
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The Tsukuba Express at a Glance

  • Year Construction Began:
    1994
  • First Day of Operation:
    Aug. 24, 2005
  • Number of Stations: 20
  • End Terminals:
    Akihabara (Tokyo), Tsukuba
    Center (Tsukuba)
  • Length of Railway:
     58.3 km (36.22 miles)
  • Mode of Power:
    DC overhead catenary
    (Akihabara-Moriya),
    AC (Miraidaira-Tsukuba)
  • Top Operating Speed:
    130 kph (80.77 mph)
  • Average Daily Ridership
    (including Metro Tokyo):
    270,000 (2009)

Aboard with Two TX Riders

Although the main flow of Tsukuba Express users are Tokyo commuters, there is a flow in both directions. Tsukuba has many research labs (public and private) and a large university campus which draw students and serve as job centers.

  • User: Tariq Shehzad
  • Position: postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tsukuba
  • Uses TX: for professional travel and family trips
    “I arrived here in June 2005.
    The first few trips I took to Tokyo, someone had to drop me off and pick me up at Hitachini-Ushiku. [on the older Joban Line a 30 min-ute drive from Tsukuba Center].
    It was not nearly as fast the TX is now. The TX is also more comfortable for traveling with children.”
  • User: Jules Dim
  • Position: researcher at JAXA (Japan Space Agency) Tsukuba
  • Uses TX: for professional travel and personal trips
    “The terminal at Tsukuba Center is just a 15-minute bicycle ride from where I live. The train schedules are very accurate. That matters if there is a conference or meeting in Tokyo. The TX is also very advanced in the use of multiple languages [TX announcements on the train are routinely in English and Japanese].”

 

If a Japanese Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in a wooded thicket near the city of Tsukuba’s Kenkyu-Gakuen section in the late 1980s and woke up 20 years later, he would have been shocked at the sights and sounds. The trees would have been sawed down and replaced by busy roads and housing developments, and the sleepy rice fields paved over for jammed parking lots and a large shopping center. Commuter trains on a new rail line would rumble by every few minutes.


Photos Courtesy of Tsukuba Express

The 20-station Tsukuba Express rail line has helped spur

commercial and residential growth along its outer reaches,

which now enjoy far greater transit access to Tokyo.

In August 2005, the Tsukuba Express (TX) began service between Tsukuba, in southern Ibaraki Prefecture, and Akihabara, the famed high-tech hub in Tokyo. Groundbreaking and construction had started 11 years before and the line had been promised openly since Tsukuba hosted the World Expo in 1985.

Tsukuba was already home to one of the major universities in Japan and several lesser-known colleges. The Japanese government, for reasons of space and economy and to relieve congestion in metropolitan Tokyo, had begun to move all of its research institutes to places where there was more land for expansion.

Although not a direct factor in building the new line, moving the research institutes there carried an implicit promise that there would be easier access to Tokyo by means other than driving, which was difficult because of the traffic and a lack of parking. The only mass transit options to Tokyo from the area were an oft-delayed “express bus” and a rail line located in a neighboring city. That line was already operating at capacity, handling a variety of passenger trains and freight trains.


When the 20-station TX leaves Moriya (Station 15) on the way to Tsukuba (Station 20), there are large rice fields still visible on either side. Once it leaves Kita-Senju (Station 5), the last major stop in downtown Tokyo, it goes underground all the way to the terminal in Akihabara.

The roughly 36-mile line passes through three separate prefectures (the Japanese equivalent to state governments or provinces) and more than a dozen separate municipalities.

Getting each one to agree to common design features took plenty of negotiation and meetings. It also took considerable time to buy the land and rights of way so that the railroad could operate above and below ground without a single grade crossing, allowing a much faster trip into and out of Tokyo.

Once the Tsukuba Express opened, extensive development—some planned, some unplanned—began up and down the line. Perhaps no place better illustrates this than the area around Kenkyu-Gakuen Station, located in a once sparse area of Tsukuba. It has become a classic “Field of Dreams” case study in transit-oriented development.

A New City Center

When the Tsukuba Express opened, most of the area around Kenkyu-Gakuen Station was still undeveloped. Today, there are three business hotels within a 5-minute walk of the station (Tsukuba Center has four), several clusters of high-rise condominiums, a large shopping mall and two tract housing developments, with at least three more planned. The City of Tsukuba relocated most of its municipal departments to a new City Hall Building within walking distance of the station.

Kenkyu-Gakuen had already been chosen as the site of City Hall, but the TX accelerated the development of an alternate city center. The area was changed dramatically by the introduction of the TX.


Commuters on the TX’s express trains can reach Tokyo from

Tsukuba Station (above) in about 45 minutes.

The cost for a round-trip ticket from Tsukuba to the city, with unlimited use of the Tokyo Metro system trains, runs about $30 in current exchange rates, with discounts available for monthly and weekly passes. The cost of driving—including tolls, parking in downtown Tokyo (sometimes north of 5,000 yen, or about $65, in the most desired areas) and gas (over $7 a gallon)—can be more than double that amount, well out of reach for an average office worker’s salary. Throw in the time lost in Tokyo traffic, which can add an extra hour each way, and the TX becomes an even more attractive alternative. 

The TX not only created an alternate city center, it opened the chance for couples living in metro Tokyo or the immediately adjacent suburbs to move “up the line” to where land was cheaper. In effect, the TX created a bedroom city for Tokyo.

Tsukuba is roughly oval in shape, bounded on one side by Mt. Tsukuba. Tsukuba Center is at the center of the oval, while Kenkyu-Gakuen is a few kilometers away. The TX is underground at Tsukuba Center but aboveground at Kenkyu-Gakuen, where it bisected vacant land and rice fields. When the railroad bought up the tracts to build the TX, it removed many of the existing restrictions from building on them.

Today, the area around Kenkyu-Gakuen is still dotted with construction cranes heavy land graders, bulldozers and backhoes. Although some of the development and individual buildings were unplanned, the general direction of development, the creation of an alternate city center were foreseen and desired.

“From a general point of view, the TX has had a positive effect on the city,” said Tsukuba City Councilman Jon Heese.

The line’s success led to some unintended consequences, as areas that previously dealt with light or very predictable traffic patterns now had to accommodate an influx of cars. Heese, one of a handful of foreigners who sit on city councils in Japan, recounted how the volume of cars overwhelmed the commuter parking lots at Tsukuba Center, spilling over into the lots that were meant for the department stores and shopping center above the terminal.

"Cars were parking and even double-parking all along the streets there, even blocking the bus terminal nearby,” Heese said. “When the bus terminal was rebuilt recently, we had a special parking lot set aside where people can park … free of charge for less than 20 minutes. … And while [the driver is] waiting, they are not blocking traffic.”

The project was spurred by the increasing number of riders taking advantage of this convenient new access to the city. The TX’s fastest express trains were making the 36-mile trip from Tsukuba to Tokyo in about 45 minutes.

Signs Point to Continued Growth

Masaaki Nozawa, section chief in the Urban Policy Division of Tsukuba, said the TX has attracted riders not only by offering fast access to the city, but modern amenities that improve the ride, such as wireless Internet service in each train car and station.

“When we were planning and building the TX, our main concerns were convenience, which has many elements, and comfort,” Nozawa said. “We could achieve higher speed by simply eliminating any grade crossing. We used technology that was already proven but near the edge, such as the kinetic energy brakes which are very similar to those used in hybrid cars. We have upgraded certain features on the trains to keep up with demand.”


With higher than projected ridership and farebox numbers,

TX officials are considering expanding the line and investing

in a series of station upgrades.

Among the TX’s other innovative elements, the line uses platform guard gates that automatically open when trains arrive and close when they leave, a safety feature that is not yet standard on the nation’s railways. TX locomotives are guided by an automatic train operation (ATO) system with a conductor onboard overseeing and operating the computers.

Expansion appears to be in the works. Officials are considering increasing the length of trains, a move that would require upgrades in most of the stations, such as extending the platform length.

“We are also studying expanding the TX to Tokyo Station to link up with the Narita and Haneda Express trains [to both international airports in the Tokyo area] as well as to the national shinkansen [bullet train] network,” Nozawa said. “This is under study because the extension would have to be very deep underground to avoid interference with existing rail networks, and disruption in the streets above.”

With ridership figures exceeding expectations and signs pointed to continued growth, TX officials are optimistic their investments will pay off.

“Presently, we are more than one year ahead of what our projections were,” Nozawa said. “This has allowed us to begin payment on debt service to the private consortium [that financed the line]. Paying down that debt faster, of course, will allow us a greater flexibility in any of our operational choices.”

Heese put it a different way.

“The population in other parts of Honshu [the largest of the 4 main islands in Japan] is shrinking, and the towns are hollowing out. Tsukuba is getting some of the overfill,” he said. “Some are refugees from the suburbs closer to Tokyo, where it is more congested and more expensive. And some are simply moving from places where there is little or no growth to one where there is actual growth and the potential for far more.”

Richard P. Greenfield is a freelance writer based in Japan.

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