Labor market puts Hokkaido Shinkansen goal in doubt

Despite delays, officials vow Hakodate-Sapporo line will open on time




The Japan Times


Unexpected construction delays and a tight labor market have made finishing the Hokkaido Shinkansen route to Sapporo by the end of the 2030 fiscal year problematic, although officials continue to say it will open on schedule. Along with the Rapidus semiconductor plant in Chitose, the Hokkaido Shinkansen is a nationally supported project that the prefecture is counting on to help revive the local economy. The 212-kilometer route now under construction will link cities between Hakodate, at the southern tip of the prefecture, and Sapporo, completing a project that began in 2012 to connect Aomori Prefecture to Sapporo via shinkansen. Along the way to and from Sapporo, the train will stop at the ski resort town of Kutchan, close to Niseko, as well as the port city of Otaru. The first part of the Hokkaido Shinkansen, the 149 km route between Shin-Aomori station and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, near the port city of Hakodate, opened in 2016. Once the Hokkaido Shinkansen is extended to Sapporo, it will be possible to travel from Sapporo to Shin-Aomori, and then by Tohoku Shinkansen all the way to Tokyo. Total travel time will be five hours, as opposed to the nine hours by shinkansen and regular train service now required. But finishing the shinkansen has proved more difficult than expected. Of the remaining 212 km to be constructed, about 80% passes through tunnels. While 69% of the necessary tunnel excavation had been completed as of October, engineering and logistical issues have been holding things up. “Tunnel excavation was temporarily halted in some construction zones due to delays such as the unearthing of massive boulders that had to be removed, and the difficulties in finding places to dispose of the soil from the tunnel excavations,” says Yuji Akimoto, an official at the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT), which is in charge of building the project. In a December 2022 report, a transport ministry panel of experts also noted that locations where the excavation dirt was being dumped faced higher than originally estimated costs for transportation and disposal. Furthermore, additional steps were needed at the landfill sites to prevent dirt with heavy metals from contaminating the underground water table. Reinforcement work to prevent cave-ins was also needed on areas of the tunnels that had proved weaker than expected. In addition, the panel noted that economic changes since the project began in 2012 were slowing construction down. Rising prices over the past decade have increased costs for the firms involved with the shinkansen project. Meanwhile, the consumption tax, which was 5% in 2012, had risen to 10% by 2022, which resulted in the need to pay workers more. The report said an additional ¥645 billion ($4.28 billion, based on recent rates) was necessary to complete the Hokkaido Shinkansen. Construction costs in 2012 for the Hakodate to Sapporo route alone were estimated at about ¥1.67 trillion, and now stand at about ¥2.3 trillion. The experts concluded that construction in some areas along the final route was three or four years behind the original schedule. The tight labor market is causing problems. A shortage of available workers has already forced the reconsideration of local construction projects in Sapporo, while a cap on overtime hours in the construction industry that goes into effect in April is widely predicted to impact the availability of workers. However, despite the delays and added costs, the central government, JR officials and Hokkaido are sticking to the original plans for finishing the shinkansen — at least for now. “Construction of the Shin-HakodateHokuto to Sapporo line is underway with the aim of being completed by the end of fiscal 2030. At present, the transport ministry has not changed its target for the opening,” transport minister Tetsuo Saito told reporters last month. Towns along the final route of the shinkansen are preparing for its arrival, whenever that may be. One of their first orders of business is to choose the design of their new shinkansen station, with JRTT offering them several options. At the moment, Sapporo has chosen the design for its station, while four other municipalities, including Kutchan and Otaru, are in discussions about the design for theirs. But the overall economic impact on Hokkaido once the shinkansen line is extended to Sapporo is unclear. The last major forecast by the prefecture was released in 2012, says Hiroyuki Nagata, a prefectural official whose division is in charge of the shinkansen project. “At the time, it was estimated that if the Sapporo extension opened in fiscal 2030, a total of 3.54 million people would use the Hokkaido Shinkansen that year,” he says. The prefecture also estimated that the project would generate nearly ¥670 billion in local tax revenue for the prefecture over a 30 year period after its opening. But there are no more JRTT or prefectural estimates of what the impact on the shinkansen might be, including changes in the global economy — such as an exchange rate that has made it far cheaper for international tourists to travel to Japan — and changes in Hokkaido, including rising expectations for the Rapidus semiconductor plant and related new businesses the prefecture hopes it will attract, and what that might mean for increased shinkansen use. It’s also hard to make future economic predictions on the local economy because some of the most basic details of what completion of the route means to individual travelers have yet to be determined — starting with the cost of a ticket. As of early November, the standard oneway fare is ¥23,430 for the four to four-and-ahalf-hour trip on the Tohoku and Hokkaido shinkansen lines between Tokyo and ShinHakodate-Hokuto. How much more it will cost to go all the way to Sapporo, stop off for a skiing vacation in Kutchan, or a tour of Otaru is a subject for future debate, Akimoto says. “At the moment it’s still too early to decide ticket costs for the final route. But that is certainly something that everyone wants to know.”