New Possibilities in Fukuoka Public Transit: Nanakuma Subway Line Extension and Possible LRT Introduction

Nanakuma Subway Line

Fukuoka is known for its extremely convenient airport and seaport access, and this combined with a centrally located Shinkansen (“bullet train”) station that acts as the terminus for the Sanyo Shinkansen Line as well as the new Kyushu Shinkansen Line makes Fukuoka the central transport hub for Kyushu and much of western Japan. Furthermore, despite its large population, central Fukuoka City is relatively compact, making it the perfect place to introduce public transportation. However, despite the three subway lines and multiple train lines operated by both Nishitetsu and JR, many roads are still clogged, and access between the Hakata Station, the town center in Tenjin and many other vital districts around town still relies heavily on buses moving along already-crowded traffic corridors.

I’d like to introduce two promising mass-transit projects that are under consideration for Fukuoka City, one of which is already on the path to implementation. These two projects are (1) extension of the Nanakuma Subway Line and (2) introduction of a central-city light rail system.

Extension of the Nanakuma Subway Line

Official planning and preliminary meetings have been progressing steadily, and the much-discussed extension of the Nanakuma Subway Line is set to be carried out over the coming decade or so. The Fukuoka City Transportation Bureau is currently gathering the required permits, after which time it will begin construction. The new section of the line is expected to open in the 2020s, and the budget deficit created by construction costs and other expenses is expected to be eliminated after approximately 12 years of operation.

The need for an extension has been deemed necessary by most, and much of the debate has centered around the route for the new section. The following four ideas have been proposed:

Proposed Nanakuma Line extensions (see description below)

The green line is the current Nanakuma Subway Line, which terminates at Tenjin-minami Station (near Tenjin Station on the Nishitetsu Omuta Line and Kuko Subway Line). The Kuko Subway Line is shown in orange, connecting on the right with Hakata Station on the JR lines (dashed line) and continuing on to the airport (off-map), and the violet line is the Hakozaki Subway Line. The proposed “WF route” (waterfront route) is in red, connecting Tenjin (the city center) with the Port of Hakata, an important international sea terminal. The proposed Yakuin-Hakata route in purple would connect Yakuin Station on the Nishitetsu Omuta Line (a large, central station on the important Nishitetsu Omuta Line, and a station already served by the current Nanakuma Line) and Hakata Station (the main station in Fukuoka for JR lines, including the Shinkansen) via Sumiyoshi-dori, a heavily congested street currently covered by buses and badly in need of better public transportation–some people argue that the Nanakuma Line should have been extended in this direction to begin with, rather than turning northwest along Watanabe-dori toward Tenjin. Finally, the blue line is the route the city intends to adopt, connecting Tenjin to Hakata Station via Nakasu and the popular Canal City shopping and entertainment mega-complex.

Currently, people arriving via airplane or Shinkansen only have the option of reaching Tenjin via the Kuko Subway Line, whose station is located in the northern section of downtown. The Nanakuma Line serves those living in the western and southern parts of Fukuoka City, but it provides no convenient connection to the Hakata Station area. The new extension will enable people coming from Hakata Station and the airport to get to the south of Tenjin–which is where much of the city center’s new development is taking place–as well as districts such as Imaizumi, Yakuin and Ropponmatsu. It will also give those coming via the Nanakuma Line an easier way to get to Hakata Station, Nakasu, the airport and other such areas without making the approximately 10-minute transfer (on foot) to the Kuko Line in Tenjin.

Introduction of Light Rail Transit in Fukuoka City

Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., Ltd. (commonly known as Nishitetsu) operates all of the city buses and several important conventional rail lines in Fukuoka City (including the Omuta Line, which terminates in the Tenjin city center), as well as highway buses throughout Kyushu and Japan and other important transportation services. Nishitetsu is one of Japan’s “big 16” private railroad companies, and the company is involved in other ventures including real estate, hotels, supermarkets and travel (agencies). They previously operated a streetcar network within Fukuoka City, but it was shut down in 1978.

As the 30th anniversary of this shut-down arrived in 2008, talk began to circulate about the possibility of introducing light rail transit (LRT) in Fukuoka City. Although some people consider LRT to be the same thing as the dated streetcar principle, it does offer real advantages and is being increasingly employed in large cities throughout the world, especially in the United States where over-reliance on automobiles have created infrastructural, environmental, economic and other problems. I have had the pleasure of using the MAX light rail in Portland, Oregon on numerous occasions, and despite its shortcomings, it provides effective and convenient transportation in a city that once relied almost exclusively on automobiles and buses–in fact, the MAX is being used as a model system by other American cities introducing public transit. LRT is cheaper to build than subways and elevated rail, and the trains produce smaller CO2 emissions than buses do. Not only cost, but construction time, are two problems involved in any new subway extension plan, and LRT can sidestep both of these obstacles. In addition, street-level trains can be boarded with relative ease compared with station-based traditional rail and subways, especially for the increasing elderly population in Japan.

The MAX light rail, part of Portland's TriMet mass transit network

There are also disadvantages. The trains must compete with traffic, and there is a risk that they will further clog up streets–this depends greatly on how well the system is constructed, whether or not trains share traffic lanes or have their own, how traffic signals and train timing are coordinated, etc. Additionally, LRT tends to be much slower than traditional trains and subways, and around the same speed as buses, although dedicated lanes (if possible in Fukuoka) or sections of track off primary boulevards could ease this problem greatly. Furthermore, as LRT will not be used for travel to more distant suburbs (this is well-covered by conventional rail), but merely for transport within the city, slower speeds should not create a major problem.

There are no concrete plans at this point, but Nishitetsu is talking about introduction of LRT as a way of reviving parts of the former streetcar system . They realize the need for cooperation from the Fukuoka municipal government in numerous areas, and they will also have to convince automobile users that the introduction of street-level trains will not worsen traffic problems. There are no indications about the size or location of potential LRT lines, although they will likely replace heavily used bus routes as well as former streetcar routes, and they will almost surely connect with Tenjin Station and Hakata Station, with possible stops near Canal City or other parts of Nakasu, and along Watanabe-dori, Sumiyoshi-dori and/or Kokutai-doro boulevards. The following is an educated guess concerning a potential loop line, put forward by blogger てつどう図鑑+α (in Japanese):

Possible (unofficial) LRT in Fukuoka (see description below)

The dark blue line is the Kuko Subway Line, the light blue line is the Hakozaki Subway Line, the green line is the Nanakuma Subway Line (not including the planned extension to Hakata Station), the orange line is the Nishitetsu Omuta Line, the red line is the city-center 100-yen loop bus, and the yellow line is the author’s predicted LRT route. The large box on the right is Hakata Station (on the JR lines), and the two boxes on the left (from top to bottom) are Tenjin and Yakuin Stations. I agree that, if an LRT system is constructed, it will most likely feature a loop line following this approximate route: it connects to Tenjin, Yakuin and Hakata Stations (all major terminals), it stops near Canal City (the red blog near the middle), and it provides coverage for some of the most crowded streets including Sumiyoshi-dori (where it is desperately needed). It is likely that another line would connect to the Port of Hakata, which is the entry and departure point for many overseas tourists, and that another line may continue down Kokuta-doro (south side of Nishitetsu Tenjin Station) toward Ohori Park (off the left side of the map).

Closing Thoughts

Concerning the Nanakuma Line extension, I think the best route was chosen both in terms of cost and creating a logical subway network. A subway extension down Sumiyoshi-dori is needed, but having the subway branch off toward either Tenjin or Hakata from Yakuin station would make access between Hakata and Tenjin no more convenient than it is now, despite the ease on traffic it would provide along the crowded boulevard. The WF route is not ideal, as a subway connecting to the seaport is illogical in a city where international travelers arrive by airplane, and also because the so-called “waterfront” in this part of town is essentially a run-down, industrial area. An LRT line, on the other hand, would be good for the seaport, and it could be designed to better serve residential neighborhoods along the way.

A combination of LRT and subway is ideal for Fukuoka, where increased public transit is greatly needed but difficult to obtain due to high costs and the lack of a sufficient funding. Also, Fukuoka’s population is still moderate enough that LRT would provide enough transport capacity in places where a subway might be overkill. The main challenge would be figuring out where to run the trains in an LRT system–Fukuoka is made mostly of small streets that are already packed to the limit in the city center, and some boulevards may not have room for a dedicated light rail lane. If trains could be made to run on the streets at a smooth pace without interrupting traffic, many of the city’s traffic problems could be solved in an inexpensive manner.

Aside from Sumiyoshi-dori, there are several other routes that I think deserve consideration. A connection from Yakuin or Tenjin to Yahoo! Dome and the Momochihama district (an upscale business and beachfront district, and home to Fukuoka Tower) would be extremely useful, as buses following these routes are slow and inefficient, especially on baseball game days. This route could also provide a north-south link between the Nanakuma and Kuko Subway Lines (currently Tenjin is the only area where transferring between the two lines is possible), as well as an additional access point to Ohori Park from the south and west if they followed existing bus routes that connect Ropponmatsu with Yahoo! Dome and Momochihama. An LRT route running along Keyaki-dori and Befubashi-dori boulevards from Tenjin past Maizuru and Ohori Parks down to Ropponmatsu would also be of use, as this narrow boulevard cannot handle heavy traffic. Finally, some sort of connection to east Fukuoka City and the eastern suburbs would be of use for those who are forced commute to the airport station by bus then ride the subway into town because of insufficient rail access.

* Note: The top image (Nanakuma Subway Line) is linked from Wikimedia Commons. The map of proposed subway extensions image is linked from the Fukuoka City Transportation Bureau’s website. The predicted LRT route map image is linked from the てつどう図鑑+α blog. The photograph of the MAX was taken by the author.

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4 Responses to New Possibilities in Fukuoka Public Transit: Nanakuma Subway Line Extension and Possible LRT Introduction

  1. illahee says:

    i wonder if a lot of traffic in fukuoka city is from people coming from far away. i can take a bus from my neighborhood and even though it is an express, it takes more than an hour. to take a train, i have to get myself to the nearest station, which isn’t really that convenient. i find driving to tenjin, which only takes me an hour, to be pretty convenient. even paying for parking costs less than train or bus. if the areas surrounding fukuoka weren’t so rural, then public transportation would probably be easier and the more cost-effective option.

  2. illahee says:

    sorry! i meant to say that the bus from my neighborhood goes to the tenjin bus center. it’s convenient in some ways, esp. on the weekend where i can pay 700 yen (one way) with the nimoko (nimoka??) card (but that’s still more expensive than parking in tenjin, even counting gas). it’s not all that convenient to get to hakata, but if i need to go to hakata, then i take the train.

    i am sure that people living in the city have figured out how to get around easily and rarely use cars unless they are leaving the city. the nanakuma line must be very convenient for the south part of the city!

    • Well, I think a lot of existing train lines are old, and they weren’t originally built to alleviate modern Fukuoka traffic problems. Fukuoka grew very fast as an urban center, and the slow expansion of transport infrastructure has left it in the same boat that a lot of US cities are in–with congested roads. Subways are expensive and time-consuming to build, and the city and its suburbs are densely enough built up that new conventional rail is probably unrealistic. Again, that’s why I think adding LRT to the mix would be perfect here, even out to the more rural suburbs 🙂 As I mentioned, they did that in Portland and it works pretty well!
      As for me, I live near Tenjin, so I usually bike around 😛

  3. tukusigal says:

    You must be able to read Japanese to collect this much information. I grew up in Fukuoka. We had streetcars until I went to high school. I miss streetcars! And I wish there were trains where I live in the U.S. Traffic in Fukuoka has become pretty bad, because too many people drive “my car” now.

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