Hiroshima’s airport syndrome

E-mail from a friend:

I look at the map and there’s a great airport right by the bay of Hiroshima. Great I think. Just like Fukuoka, an airport right in city center, nice and convenient.

But no, that’s the “Hiroshima West Flying strip.” The actual airport is, of course, up in the f***ing mountains, 50km and an hour bus ride away from Hiroshima.

How the f*** did this country get trains so right, and yet planes so wrong?

Check it out on Google Maps. You have to zoom into Hiroshima City to see the smaller airport.

View Larger Map

Hiroshima West was Hiroshima’s only airport from 1961 until 1992, when the new Hiroshima Airport opened outside the city. For a while Hiroshima West stayed alive as a hub for small regional prop plane flights, sort of like Sapporo’s Okadama Airport, but nowadays its operations are limited to a couple of podunk destinations, and everyone else has to either take the Shinkansen or subject themselves to the hour-long bus ride from the new airport.

Japan’s trains lucked out — they were set up (for the most part) before 1920, back when it was easy to find and expropriate land for lines and stations. Japan’s airports are much more recent creations. There are only two significant Japanese airports which predate World War II: Tokyo Haneda and Sapporo Chitose. Most of the major airports of the early postwar era were built as military bases during the war (Itami, Komaki, Fukuoka, Okinawa) and didn’t get civilian operations until the 1950s, by which point they were starting to be strangled by their neighboring cities, right when runway and terminal extensions were needed to handle the new generation of jets. This is how we ended up with inconvenient monstrosities like Narita and the new Hiroshima airport.

(The biggest postwar rail development, the Shinkansen network, is not coincidentally also an inconvenient one in places like Yokohama and Osaka, where they had to stick the terminal in the middle of nowhere for lack of better options.)

To Japan’s credit, most of the big-city airports here are now multimodal, with direct rail connections into the city. There are two rail lines that pass right by Hiroshima Airport — the Sanyo Shinkansen and Sanyo Main Line — and there have been a multitude of plans to connect one or both of these lines to the airport by a spur line, monorail, maglev, ropeway or any number of other mass-transit means. So why hasn’t this happened?

Both of those lines are JR lines, and Hiroshima is one city where JR has an ironclad grip on domestic travel. Tokyo-Hiroshima is 4 hours by Shinkansen: by plane it’s 90 minutes, but the transfer from Hiroshima Airport to the city takes 60-90 minutes depending on how long it takes for the bus to show up, and another 45-60 minutes to get to Haneda and check in makes flying a bigger hassle than it’s worth on this heavily-traveled route. The airlines can stay competitive in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka thanks to relatively convenient airports, but the inconvenience of Hiroshima Airport works in favor of the one company that has the power to make it more convenient.

25 thoughts on “Hiroshima’s airport syndrome”

  1. Maybe Hiroshima Airport was also designed to serve Mihara, Onimichi, and Fukuyama? Talking of central, you don’t get much more central than Fukuoka’s airport. You could probably walk to Hakata Station if you didn’t have too much luggage….

    (And on a tangent, I wonder how many Japanese tourists landing at Guam appreciate that they are landing at the airport (one of) that B-29s took off from to bomb Japan?)

    It also wasn’t *that* easy to get land for stations in Meiji or Taisho Japan. The reason many stations seem central now is because the city has grown so much, but in many cases – as in Hiroshima – the station is where the outskirts of the old city was.

  2. (Okay, I see the riginal post from a friend mentioned Fukuoka. Okay, ignore what I said….)

  3. When I took the brand new Taiwan Shinkansen from Taipei to Taichung I was thrilled at how it left from the basement of Taipei’s centrally located main station, and cost less than the Japan shinkansen for the same speed and quality, but was pretty annoyed at how damn far away the stations are in every other city. The worst part is that Taichung hasn’t even gotten around to building a metro system yet, so the options for getting into town are going to remain sketchy for years to come. I guess they were willing to spring for a long tunnel leading into central Taipei, but not for similar tunnels anywhere else.

    Let’s just not even talk about rail travel in the US for now. I might cry.

  4. FUK has a great location. Few airports rival it. Taipei’s Songshan, perhaps. As far as international airports go, the only equally convenient ones I can think of are Miami and Tampa. I think they came out that way because the airports were built when the cities were still small towns, so it was easier to simply build them close by.

    All around the world, convenient airports have an annoying tendency to be bulldozed (Denver, Chicago, Berlin, HK) or regulated beyond relevance (Dallas, Toronto, Osaka, Kobe). It’s a miracle that they haven’t already closed FUK and replaced it with a larger thing hundreds of kilos away at enormous taxpayer expense.

  5. Not just the airport – for a city of its size, Fukuoka has an excellent subway. You can get off the shinkansen, hop on the subway, and be in the airport in less than 10 minutes and it connects to other major spots as well.

  6. FUK has an insane location if you live in Fukuoka anywhere near the flightpath. That is a very legitimate reason for relocation.

    Just looked up WikiJ – FUK was a military base.
    And I did not know this:
    Bigger than Kansai?

  7. The last time I flew into Stockholm I was blown away, FWIW. It seemed like a half hour or so from the tarmac to the heart of town, collecting luggage and customs and subway ride included. It was nuts.

    The few times I flew on the Japanese government plane to accompany the prime minister overseas somewhere we came back via Haneda, which is such a treat after years of figuring out how to get back from Narita to anywhere civilized. Here’s hoping they can overcome the Chiba prefectural government’s whining about lost landing fees and start pumping a lot more international routes through Ota Ward.

  8. “FUK has a great location. Few airports rival it. Taipei’s Songshan, perhaps. ”

    Of course, Songshan is no longer an international airport. Which, incidentally, makes its use for cross-straight flights with the PRC VERY controversial. It is amazingly located though. I once biked there by accident while exploring the city, and was shocked at how close it was. Worth noting though that Taoyuan Airport (formerly CKS) is supposed to be getting an express MRT train connection in the next few years.

    Both of the NYC airports are located pretty damn inconveniently, but Newark airport is actually not bad at all. I think you can even get to Manhattan by train from there in under half the time it takes to go from JFK or LaGuardia.

    Durf, how did you get to be accompanying the Japanese PM?

  9. BTW, like FUK, Songshan was originally a Japanese military airbase. I have an awesome 1930s poster map of Taipei that shows the location dotted with little Rising Sun-emblazened fighter planes.

  10. I should probably make the effort and get to Taiwan soon. Aside from the food, which I hope is nicer than in China, and the collection of loot absconded from the Forbidden City, there seem to be quite a number of interesting sites related to the Japanese period.

    I remember getting to LaGuardia when I went to NY – took the subway out as far as I could and changed to the bus. Worked well, but it was annoying how at the station the signs to the bus petered out well before I could see any bus stop…. My hometown airport I have always found ideally located – it is on a peninsula sticking out into a bay and thus the sprawl of the city has passed it by, yet it is no more than a half hour drive home (to fairly near the centre of the city). I think that is the ideal solution – much like Haneda. Have the flight paths over water, and you can basically have the airport as close to the city center as you like. Incidentally, Washington National (another very convenient location) apparently has its flight paths over water (the Potomac) as that is virtually the only airpace over DC that is permitted. Certainly gives you a great view coming in.

  11. Yeah, plenty of good food in Taiwan. I’d offer to show you around when you drop by, but I’m not living there at the moment. Perhaps someday in the future. The Palace Museum is in fact wonderful (several other good museums too), and there are certainly quite a few interesting sites dating to the Japanese period.

    I also took the subway and bus to LaGuardia. Sure it works, but it’s poorly labeled and annoying. I kind of felt like they don’t really expect passengers to go by bus, only airport staff.

  12. On an aside, a number of big airports started life as military bases. Atlanta, O’Hare and Heathrow (who fill out the top four in terms of passengers, along with Haneda) were all built as military bases during WWII. Orlando used to be McCoy Air Force Base before tourism in the area exploded — this is why it still has the code “MCO.”

    I’m kind of surprised that LaGuardia hasn’t been directly tied into the NYC subway. It’s certainly close enough to build a spur from that purple line. Perhaps the issue is that they can’t tunnel to it — much of the airport is built on land that used to form a big hill on Rikers Island, so it may not be stable enough. Still, you’d think they could make a monorail or a surface line or something.

    And it’s pretty lame that Taiwan’s high speed rail doesn’t stop at TPE. I mean, the line goes right by the airport. They could have just run it underground for a couple miles and voila! Easy connections with every major city on the island. Oh well… the NRT rail link wasn’t built in a day either.

  13. Durf, how did you get to be accompanying the Japanese PM?

    One year my company landed the contract to accompany Koizumi on his overseas trips and produce English transcripts of his press conferences on the spot. I went to New York (UN General Assembly) and to Santiago for the APEC summit, and other guys in the company went to Laos and Vietnam and America and whatnot. It looks like this year they’ll be having the translations done in Tokyo after the video/audio/Japanese transcript is streamed over the interwebs instead. No more ASDF One for translators!

  14. A one hour bus ride to the airport doesn’t seem very bad by international standards. I would have thought e.g. Heathrow – Central London is about that.

  15. Wikitravel says that it’s 40-50 minutes by bus from Heathrow to Victoria, and 1:10 to/from Aldwych for the night bus. But Heathrow also has a much faster rail connection — 15 minutes by express to Paddington, or half an hour on the slower local train. The problem with Hiroshima is not so much that it’s far from the city, but that the maddeningly slow bus is the only option.

  16. Heathrow has a great underground connection – that Heathrow Link is incredibly overpriced. The Underground will cost you 4 quid to anywhere in central London.

  17. Wikipedia says the Taipei airport train will be running in 2013.

    I’m actually not sure exactly why JFK got the airtrain before LaGuardia. Was it closer to the line? Busier airport?

  18. It seems to me that LGA suffers from the same problem as Itami and Haneda — most people would choose it for convenience, all other factors being equal, and it can’t handle all those people, so the authorities feel the need to severely restrict it in order to keep traffic at the higher-capacity alternatives. Giving the other airports more convenient rail service is one way to achieve this, I guess.

    By the way, I just looked at the Wikipedia article on the AirTrain, and it says:

    The proposed Lower Manhattan-Jamaica/JFK Transportation Project would use the Long Island Rail Road Atlantic Branch to downtown Brooklyn and a new tunnel to lower Manhattan. This would provide faster service to JFK via a one-seat ride, as well as Long Island Rail Road service to lower Manhattan via a transfer at Jamaica. Under this proposal baggage could be checked in Manhattan and transferred directly to planes at the airport. Trains with hybrid propulsion systems that can run on the AirTrain, subway and Long Island Rail Road tracks might be required.

    That last sentence sounds awesome–through service between three different railway systems? Imagine the possibilities.

  19. The subway uses a third rail for power, as does the Airtrain. Does LIRR use overhead electricity like NJ Transit does? I’ve never ridden it.

    I wonder where in lower Manhattan this link would stop. Maybe that new transit hub they wanted to build before the financial crisis but is now up in the air?

  20. Off the topic of airports, but I was puzzled to the reference to Shin-Osaka station as “in the middle of nowhere “. It is anything but. Sure, it is not in the same building as the regular JR lines, but Shin-Osaka is connected to Osaka station by regular JR trains and the Midosuji subway line, a journey of only a couple of minutes. It is very, very accessible if you are taking the Shinkansen into or out of Osaka.

  21. Getting from Shin-Osaka to Osaka is actually easier then finding your way around Osaka station.

  22. “Getting from Shin-Osaka to Osaka is actually easier then finding your way around Osaka station.”

    And quicker, too….

  23. They’ve made Osaka Station a lot easier to navigate with the recent renewal, I think (although I’ll have to check that out two weekends from now, when I go hunting for fortune cookies in Kansai with Roy).

  24. Update: Hiroshima West lost scheduled service with JAL’s pull-out last October, and does not plan to re-establish scheduled service in the future per this Nikkei report:

    広島西飛行場、廃港へ 市議会が条例案否決
    2011/3/9 12:02



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