Minamiaso Railway overcomes the earthquake – Restarting full operation after 7 years

Minamiaso Railway, which suffered severe damage to its track facilities due to the Kumamoto Earthquake that occurred in April 2016, will resume operation on all lines on July 15, 2023 (Sat) under a new management system.

Minamiaso Railway type DB16 diesel rocomotive pulling Torokko train "YUSUGE-GO" stopping at Tateno Station (キャラメルhanabi/PhotoAC)
Minamiaso Railway type DB16 diesel rocomotive pulling Torokko train “YUSUGE-GO” stopping at Tateno Station (キャラメルhanabi/PhotoAC)

The new diesel car “MT-4000” runs directly into the JR Line

One of the symbols of the Minamiaso Railway is the arch bridge “Daiichi Shirakawa Bridge” that spans the Shirakawa River between Tateno and Choyo. From the train that runs about 60m above the surface of the river, you can see a superb view of the Tateno Valley, and the sightseeing trokko train “YUSUGE-GO” was running slowly on the bridge.

The strong tremors that continued for several days in the Kumamoto region also caused serious damage to the Minamiaso Railway. The Daiichi Shirakawa Bridge suffered damage such as displacement and subsidence of abutments, and fractures and deformations of bridge parts, and it was determined that replacement was necessary. In addition, many sediment inflows and tunnel damage occurred, and the 10.6 km section between Tateno and Nakamatsu continues to be suspended until now.

The first restoration work was started in March 2018, and it took about five years to complete the restoration of the damaged points while receiving support such as donations from all over Japan. Currently, test runs are being carried out, including the suspended sections, for the opening of the entire line for the first time in about 7 years and 3 months.

The operation system of the line will be renewed to the “upper and lower separation system” to make it sustainable in the future. “The Minamiaso Railway Management Organization”, a general incorporated association established by Kumamoto Prefecture, Takamori Town, and Minamiaso Village, will become a third-class railway operator and will own and manage railway land and facilities transferred from Minamiaso Railway free of charge. Minamiaso Railway, a second-class railway operator, will lease facilities from the organization free of charge and will improve profitability by focusing on operation and promotion of use.

In November 2022, they will introduce the “MT-4000 type”, the first new model train in 25 years, and started commercial operation of it in April 2023. The white body is decorated with flowing lines inspired by the Shirakawa River and the Five Peaks of Aso. In order to strengthen the acceptance system for foreign tourists, it supports guidance in multiple languages.

The MT-4000 type is equipped with a driving safety device that supports entry into the JR line, and with the restoration of the entire line, local trains will be newly established that will operate directly to Higo-Ozu Station on the Hohi Line. This was realized based on a survey of residents along the line about their intentions to use it, and there will be two round trips per day between Takamori and Higo-Ozu in the morning. A free shuttle bus route is available between Higo-Ozu Station and Aso Kumamoto Airport, and an influx of tourists can be expected by reducing the hassle of transferring.

(See the chart below for details such as the route map of the Minamiaso Railway and the timetables for the Torokko train “YUSUGE-GO” and “The Sunny Train”.)

[Chart] The route map of the Minamiaso Railway and the timetables for the Torokko train "YUSUGE-GO" and "The Sunny Train"

Torokko train “YUSUGE-GO” expanded to full-line operation

According to statistics before the earthquake, torokko trains accounted for about 40% of the fare revenue of Minamiaso Railway. The “YUSUGE-GO”, whose vehicle itself is a tourist resource, will continue to play the role of the company’s top earner. On July 15 (Sat), the day when all lines will resume operation, the “YUSUGE-GO” will be suspended due to a special timetable, but from July 16 (Sun), the operation section will be expanded to the all line between Tateno and Takamori. Then, it will return to the former operating system that makes two round trips a day, mainly on weekends and holidays.

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On the other hand, as part of the “ONE PIECE Kumamoto Reconstruction Project” in collaboration with the popular manga “ONE PIECE” by Eiichiro Oda, a manga artist from Kumamoto Prefecture, a collaboration train will appear as a new symbol of reconstruction. The interior and exterior of the MT-3010 type diesel car will be customized to pirate ship specifications, and will be unveiled on July 22 (Sat) as “The Sunny Train”.

From July 15 (Sat), when the route will restart, digital tickets that allow you to travel around the Aso area at a great value will be sold on the smartphone app “my route”. Developed as a demonstration project for the “Kumamoto-style Tourism MaaS” implemented by the Kumamoto Prefectural Tourism Federation, within 24 hours after the start of use, you can ride many trains and buses of Minamiaso Railway, JR Kyushu and Kyushu Sanko Bus as you want just by showing your smartphone screen.

The price is 1,900 yen for the “Minami Aso Tabi no Rail Bus”, a free area centered around the Minami Aso Railway, and 2,900 yen for the “Aso Tabi no Rail Bus”, which includes Aso City, Oguni Town and so on (both for adults only). From August 10 (Thu), they are planning to sell “access tickets” that set one-way or round-trip transportation from Kumamoto city to the free area.

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