Rikubetsu hands-on driving course adds new 5.7 km route – the longest in Japan

Sep. 5

This spring, Japan’s longest hands-on driving course (5.7 km) was created at the ‘Furusato Ginga Line Rikubetsu Railway’, a popular attraction among railway enthusiasts, in the town of Rikubetsu in the Tokachi region of eastern Hokkaido. The operating condition in which the 6-carriage diesel railcar and tracks have been preserved is one of the best in Japan.
The attraction has established itself as an outdoor activity in which participants can avoid the ‘three Cs’ during the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite its considerable price of 60,000 yen, the hands-on activity on the longest course is fully booked, with a list of those awaiting cancellations.

■ Speed through the forest for 80 minutes
Before riding the train, Mr. Nishimoto, a railway enthusiast for 30 years who was visiting from Tokyo in mid-July, smiled “There aren’t many tourist railways where you can enjoy the nature while driving for over an hour. Having to suddenly brake because a deer appears while you’re driving is also one of the good parts unique to Hokkaido.” This is the 4th consecutive year Nishimoto has taken part in the activity. Each time, he thinks nothing of spending almost 100,000 yen, including accommodation fees.

Nishimoto experienced 2 round-trip journeys on the 5.7 km stretch between the former Rikubetsu and Bunsen stations; a stretch that was introduced on April 30. Driving began at the basic speed of 15 km/h under the guidance of veteran driver, Mr. Futono. The train sped through the forest as Futono gave instructions regarding safety confirmation and stopping, as well as the timing of blowing the whistle and where to stop at level crossings. After eighty minutes of driving, Nishimoto seemed satisfied. “It was so much fun and the time flew by so quickly. I want to try it every year,” he said.

The Rikubetsu Railway opened in 2008 as a tourist railway where visitors can enjoy diesel locomotive rides and hands-on driving activities, utilizing the trains from the Furusato Ginga Line, which was closed in 2006. There are five courses for the popular hands-on driving activities (prices range from 2,000 to 60,000 yen).

■Popular among customers from outside Hokkaido
Even during the Coronavirus pandemic, demand for the hands-on driving activities has been strong. Sales have increased by 16.6% to 13.19 million yen, the highest ever. The reason for this is the popularity of the considerably priced driving activities that cost between 20,000 and 35,000 yen. In the last fiscal year, the number of users steadily rose to approximately 800.

This fiscal year, the 60,000-yen Bunsen course was introduced, and income is expected to increase even more. Advance reservations for a maximum of four people every Friday are almost all fully booked. The majority of these people are railway enthusiasts from outside Hokkaido. According to the chair of the town’s chamber of commerce, “Rikubetsu Railway is an important tourism resource; it is hoped to further improve its appeal.”

The train arrives at the longest course’s terminus at the former Bunsen Station, before returning to the former Rikubetsu Station.
A railway enthsiast driving the train
The train traveling through green landscapes near the former Bunsen Station

Location

Furusato Ginga Line Rikubetsu Railway

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