Japan is still a tramway country: despite the enormous efforts to expand urban rail transport systems by means of metro lines and commuter rail-like connections, there are some 20 tram operators, some of them combined with interurban tramway services.
In contrast, completely new tram or light rail operations have been built around the world in numerous countries, but not in Japan – only the Toyamako Line (Portram) in Toyama, which opened in 2006 and has since been integrated into the city network, might be a kind of of an exemption.
But now the picture is changing a little:
After some delay, but not without much ceremony, service began today, 26 August 2023, on the new 14.6 km light rail line connecting the main station of the large city of Utsunomiya with the city centre and the neighbouring city of Haga. From 3 p.m., the public was allowed to use the new low-floor tram, initially as free rides that had to be reserved in advance and were quickly booked up. Revenue service on the double-track line, laid on a separate alignment and with the nation-wide used 1,067 mm gauge, begins on 27 August.
Utsunomiya is located in the Tochigi prefecture about 120 km north of the capital Tokyo and has about 520,000 inhabitants. For the Japanese (and not only for them), the city is known, among others, as the home of gyozas – small dumplings – which are now quite popular all over the world. The Shinkansen express train takes less than an hour to reach the centre of Tokyo.
The new light rail line is primarily intended to relieve the city of heavy commuter traffic, but also to improve the existing public transport system, which has so far been relying mainly on motor buses. The ministerial permission to build the tramway was granted in 2016, construction work began in 2018, and after several delays due to corrections and improvements, including a derailment during test runs last year, the new light rail is running.
During rush hour every 6 minutes, otherwise every 10 minutes, the brandnew, three-section low-floor vehicles serve the line. The Japanese manufacturer Niiaja Transys supplied 17 of these articulated tram cars, designated “Lightline”. They are 29.5m long, 2.65m wide and have a passenger capacity of 150, 50 of them seated. They are numbered HU301 – HU317 in Utsunomiya.
The light rail is operated by Utsunomiya Light Rail Co. Ltd, which is majority publicly owned.26.08.2023