Tokyo monorail faces pressure to upgrade

TOKYO - Anticipation of many foreign visitors arriving at Haneda Airport for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games could bring big changes to the transportation network that links the airport to downtown Tokyo.

Built for the 1964 summer Olympics, the Tokyo Monorail has until now competed with the Keikyu Airport Line for customers, but the monorail's parent company, East Japan Railway Co., is said to be considering building a new line to the airport, which would change the situation drastically.

It does not appear that things will get easier for the monorail.

Inconvenient starting point

Among the many ways of getting to Haneda, including buses and personal cars, the monorail and Keikyu Airport Line carry about half the passenger load.

Since the Keikyu Airport Line opened in 1998, the two lines have competed fiercely over speed and price. Nevertheless, while the monorail transports an average of 65,000 passengers per day, the Keikyu Line transports about 82,000.

One reason for the monorail's struggle to attract riders is the inconvenience of its starting point-Hamamatsucho Station. The monorail platform is on the fifth floor of the station building, and getting there requires several escalator rides.

The station is also quite small and difficult to use. During rush hour, the place is packed-a turn-off to potential monorail users.

New line from Tamachi eyed

Amid all this comes JR East's plan for a new line to accommodate the anticipated influx of overseas travelers for the Olympics.

Connecting a currently unused freight line near the Yamanote Line's Tamachi Station with Haneda appears to be the most favoured option at the moment.

When asked about the prospect of yet another competitor, a representative of the company that runs the monorail only said they needed to wait and see, but a Keikyu Corp. official expressed concern.

"A new line would make the battle over customers even more intense," the official said.

Which is why Keikyu is hoping that taking part in the planned "New Tokyo Station," to be built near Tokyo Station, will allow it to sweep up a large number of riders all at once.

The new station would allow direct travel between Haneda with Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture. If completed, it would make travel between the two airports much more convenient.

Tokyo Station solution

To counter this, the monorail is considering taking advantage of redevelopment projects around Hamamatsucho Station to renovate its platform and make connections to nearby JR and subway lines easier.

But compared to the Keikyu Line's prime spot in Shinagawa Station-a Shinkansen bullet train stop-there are not many benefits to starting one's journey at Hamamatsucho.

To address this, the firm that runs the monorail is quietly considering extending the line to Tokyo Station.

Company officials regret not extending the line when it was considered during construction.

Before the monorail opened in 1964, the initial plan was to start it from Shimbashi Station. However, it was thought there was not enough time before the Olympics to acquire the land for the line.

Eventually, lack of time pressed them into picking Hamamatsucho as the starting point.

In the run-up to the 2020 Games, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry is looking to execute a major overhaul of the transportation network.

"We haven't given up on the ideal of extending the line to Tokyo Station," said a spokesman of the company that runs the monorail.