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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Street Cars (LRT) on their way back in Kyoto?

京都で路面電車復活?

The Kyoto city government has apparently decided to reintroduce trolleys--or, as their modern descendants are more elegantly known, LRT. The acronym stands for "light rail transit," which features rolling stock that is low to the ground and quiet. The trains are sleek and run in dedicated lanes forbidden to automobiles. No official decision has been made or announced in Kyoto, but if what I saw today is any indication it is a done deal.

lrt-stopAs part of a PR campaign to win the "understanding" (i.e., agreement) of city residents, the city sponsored a test run along Imadegawa Dori (street), which is one of the main east-west corridors in central Kyoto. The man in white gloves at left is stopping one of the test run buses with a sign that reads: "Test-Run Bus, Stopping Place." Joining him were hundreds of sign-carrying, whistle-blowing, uniform-wearing men to make sure that things went smoothly.

The test-run was publicized well in advance, with coverage in local papers and tv since the fall--and the street is an ideal location for a tram line.

Imadegawa Street runs from the Silver Pavilion, hard by Mt. Hiei in the east, west past Kyoto University, then across the Kamo River. From there it passes through the following areas: the Imperial Palace and Doshisha University, Nishijin textile area, Kita no Tenmangu Shrine, and up to Kita no Hakubai cho, which is the current terminus of the Keifuku train line. That line runs on a tourist route past Ryoanji Temple, Ninnaji Temple, and other temples and shrines all the way to Arashiyama in the west of the city.

The western part of the city is in particular need of light rail. Far from the city's two subway lines and the JR Sagano Line, residents of these areas are left to rely on city buses. Because of traffic, a trip into central Kyoto for example can take an hour during rush hour, as much as 90 minutes in the peak tourist seasons. On a bicycle, you can make it in 30 minutes easily.

Kyoto was the first city in Japan to have streetcars, in 1895, and there once was a line along Imadegawa. The network covered much of the city, and remains beloved by nearly everyone over the age of 40. The tracks however were pulled up in 1978 in favor of cars and buses, and today only one stretch of the Keifuku Line still runs on a street.

lrt-hiroshimaThe result was predictable enough: the number of cars and buses increased dramatically. And with them traffic jams and pollution. The city has belatedly realized that LRT is environmentally friendly, good for the all-important tourist industry, and will solve many of the traffic issues in northern Kyoto.

Today's test-run used city buses, and it lasted from 10 am until 1 pm. Passes for the ride were given out to "monitors" who were chosen in a lottery. The buses were given the center lane right of way, and followed the proposed course: from the Kamo River to Kita no Hakubai cho. Police, hired guards (to prevent illegal parking on the outer lanes), and the media were all well represented.

As an example of what may Kyoto's future may hold, see the photo above of Hiroshima's light rail in a 2005 snow storm.


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