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Seminar on ‘Challenges for Railway Systems in South-East Asia’

Challenges for Railway Systems in South-East Asia:  Lessons from 30 Years' Experience of the Privatization of Japanese National Railways, Regional Economics Studies Programme

Wednesday, 16 August 2017 – The primary objective of this seminar was to identify the challenges for expanding railway networks in Southeast Asia. Drawing on his rich experience as the first president and chairman of JR Kyushu Railway Company for 25 years, the speaker, Mr Yoshitaka Ishii presented riveting insights into the functioning of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) following its privatisation in 1987. The seminar was attended by an audience of 30 people comprising representatives from SMRT, lecturers, students, and members of the public.


From Left to Right: Dr Francis E. Hutchinson, Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Regional Economic Studies Programme (Chair), Me Yoshitaka Ishi (Speaker), and Translator.

Mr Ishii began by talking about the historical context of the ‘Japanese Railway Revolution’ mentioning that up until the mid-1980s, the Japanese National Railways had been plagued with great financial losses, forcing the organisation to be divided into seven smaller companies. Of these, JR Kyushu’s performance stood out, with the company witnessing rapid growth in ridership and freight transportation. Mr Ishii attributed this success to a variety of factors, including, technological advancement, corporate management, and train/track design. Continuing the discussion, the speaker emphasised on the need to upgrade railway systems all across Asia by sequentially standardising rail-gauges and coach designs, focusing on passenger safety, and developing adequate maintenance systems.

The floor was then opened for questions. Here, Dr Tomoo Kikuchi (Senior Research Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) assisted with Mr Ishii’s translations. The moderator, Dr Francis Hutchinson had three pertinent questions to ask. Regarding the forthcoming Kuala Lumpur–Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project, Dr Hutchinson asked what the ideal train frequency should be for the operations to be profitable. Citing the example of the Tokyo-Hokkaido Shinkansen (bullet train), Mr Ishii said that a minimum of three trains per hour would be needed for the HSR to compete against roadways. The second question dealt with the type of container design that should be preferred for efficient transportation of cargo on high-speed lines. Mr Ishii recommended the implementation of the proven ‘Roll-Jit-Box’ type container for best results. Finally, Mr Ishii was asked about the importance of ‘Transit Oriented Development’ in the context of the HSR, and whether JR Kyushu generated profits from non-railway operations. To this, he mentioned that for the project to be profitable, it was very important to develop commuter-convenience based businesses in and around train stations, such as food and beverage outlets, hotels, residential complexes and the like. And yes, a similar model was adopted by JR Kyushu, not just to sustain, but also to make the Japanese railways competitive in the long run.

The seminar concluded with ISEAS members thanking Mr Ishii and Dr Kikuchi for their ideas and requesting them to visit the institute again.