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Transportation firms seek to fill void left by passengers

TOKYO >> Railways, airlines and other transportation companies are bolstering their cargo operations to make up for the low numbers of people traveling — and reduced profits — due to to the pandemic.

On Sept. 10, East Japan Railway Co. began using bullet and express trains to transport local specialties and food to other areas. A bullet train headed to Tokyo Station, for instance, carried 10 boxes of grapes harvested in Suzaka, Nagano Prefecture.

The new mode of transporting goods has provided unexpected benefits. Transport by train is often speedier than truck service, and arrival times can be more punctual.

Rail industry leaders are looking at cargo operations as more than just a temporary solution.

“(Passenger) demand won’t go back to normal even when the pandemic ends,” said JR East President Yuji Fukasawa, in explaining that JR East plans to expand their cargo contracts to include a variety of items, including electronic components.

During the August holiday season, passenger numbers on several major bullet train lines were down 74% from the previous year, according to Japan’s Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Seventeen airlines with regular domestic routes have been facing similar challenges. In August, domestic passenger numbers were down 70% and international passengers decreased 97%.

One of the country’s newest airlines, Japan Airlines’ low-cost carrier ZIPAIR Tokyo Inc., has yet to carry a single passenger.

In June, it began transporting electronic components and detergent instead of people on its Narita-Bangkok route. The route had been scheduled to go into service in May but was delayed due to the coronavirus.

In the taxi industry, companies have started offering food delivery services. Under a special ministry measure introduced in April, about 1,700 businesses have entered the market, and customer feedback has been positive.

Hiromi Suzuki, president of Shida Kotsu in Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture, is planning to apply for a delivery permit.

“The number of passengers is only back to about 60%. We have to create other revenue streams,” he said.

Meanwhile, the logistics industry, which organizes the flow of goods throughout the supply chain, is like many other industries in Japan — it suffers from a worker shortage.

But it created its own silver lining in these pandemic times by zeroing in on transport that can move both people and goods at the same time.

Yamato Transport Co., for instance, collaborated with the Hachikan Bus company in July to carry cargo along with its passengers.

Logistics companies are hoping partnerships like this one will continue to reduce the burden on delivery workers, shorten delivery times and boost revenue to help bus companies maintain routes in depopulated areas.

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