Rising costs and decreasing ridership: Japanese bus lines struggle to generate profits

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Nationwide bus service balance sheets are deteriorating amid rising labor and fuel costs. Bus lines in regions outside urban areas are the most in difficulty in the face of aging and shrinking populations.

A report from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism paints a grim picture for companies operating bus lines. Combined operators’ revenues in fiscal 2017 grew 1.0% year-on-year to 732.2 billion yen, but expenses increased 2.1% to 766.2 billion yen. The resulting current account balance of 95.6% represents a decrease of almost 1 percentage point compared to the previous year. Business conditions have become particularly difficult for bus services in areas with declining populations, such as Hokkaidō, Tōhoku, and Shikoku.

Of the 245 companies with a fleet of 30 or more buses providing general passenger services, only 75 were in the dark, 14 fewer than the previous year. The number of companies in the red rose by 13 to a total of 170. The figures mean that a majority of companies, 69.4%, are in deficit. Although the number of passengers served increased 0.5% year-over-year to 3.9 billion, it remains below 40% of the 10.1 billion served in the peak year of 1968 The rise in personnel costs is also weighing on companies.

Of the 21 regions listed in the report, only four have a current account balance greater than 100%. These are the prefecture of Chiba (107.9%); the Musashi / Sagami area of ​​Saitama, Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures (104.1%); the Keihin area which includes the 23 central municipalities of Tokyo and the suburbs of Mitaka, Musashino, Chōfu, Komae, Kawasaki and Yokohama (104.4%); and the Keihanshin region comprising Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka (101.3%). Regions that have fallen well below the 100% level include Shikoku (68.6%), Uetsu which includes Akita, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures (76.7%), Tōhoku (72.3%) and northern Hokkaidō (72.9%). Major urban areas averaged a current account balance of 102.5%, while other regions averaged 86.1%.

In provincial areas, bus services are a vital lifeline for older non-drivers in particular, and local governments frequently subsidize the services to keep them running.

The situation is not much better for bus services in urban areas, and many struggle to be profitable. Fiscal 2017 figures released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation for the 127 lines of its Toei bus service show that 81 lines were in the red while only 46 were making a profit. Normally the task would be to improve revenues to turn some lines from red to black, but with the entire industry facing a chronic shortage of drivers, Toei Bus even has to cut services for profitable lines.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)


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