by Atsushi Ebihara
OSAKA, Aug. 29 (Xinhua) -- The operator of the subway system in the western Japanese commercial center of Osaka has recently accelerated its efforts to educate the local population about the need for transport network privatization ahead of controversial discussions when the next municipal assembly session convenes in September.
Since summer, the Osaka City Municipal Transportation Bureau has organized "observation meetings" and promotional activities for the first time to introduce local residents and commuters to the latest engineering technology applied in its trains as well as passenger service standards at some railway facilities.
For example, at a depot for one of the key lines in Joto Ward, eastern Osaka last weekend, more than 50 people attended the meetings to frankly exchange their views about public transport service privatization. Further meetings are scheduled to invite more than 2,000 people in coming weeks.
A bureau spokesperson gave Xinhua details about other projects now underway to widely improve the bureau's image. These include replacements for old toilets in more than 100 stations with the latest clean and "fashionable" models, inviting major convenience store chains into stations to attract more shoppers and the launch of a free tourist information magazine.
The bureau expects such new efforts to persuade Osaka's subway commuters to ultimately support a plan that will transform the public operator into a financially-sound private entity in Osaka, which is in accordance with Mayor Toru Hashimoto's campaign promise to reduce the city's administrative costs.
The bureau, which employs 5,000 people in the Subway Section and other offices, carries about 2.3 million passengers per day along roughly 130 km of track serving 133 stations. This has created Japan's biggest public subway provider, which has grown under the city's longtime strict policy of not allowing private- sector companies to work within the municipal transportation system.
This policy has been in place because of the high cost of construction due to soft ground within the city that spreads out at the mouth of the Yodo River, for which the city has paid for over the past eight decades. The city has not readily wanted to turn this money over to private companies (the Subway Section alone has run in the black since fiscal year 2003), but the new policy puts a renewed focus on prioritizing benefits to city residents.
Last December, however, the city released a basic proposal to establish a public company in April 2015 for which the city will initially provide 100 percent of financing for subway networks, whose assets are valued at an estimated 1 trillion yen (about 10.2 billion U.S. dollars). The plan states that fare reductions, coupled with the privatization of the loss-making bus operating business and the closing of non-profitable bus lines, will help achieve the goal of cutting around 3 billion yen (about 30.7 million U.S. dollars) in annual costs through market mechanisms.
In addition, local media say the city expects the new company to not only concentrate on operating the subways but to also run shops, restaurants, hotels and even parking garages in or near stations as a "land developer" in order to stabilize the base of the new operator's administrative structure, as it will see a 10- percent fall in total passenger numbers due to declining birth rates.
Based on the December plan, Mayor Hashimoto submitted an amendment to the city council in February to abandon the current ordinance formulated for the maintenance of subway and bus lines.
But the proposal has been carried over to following sessions over the past months.
During the past sessions, some members have pointed out that privatization would promise profits to a limited number of major railway or bus companies based in Osaka while inevitably inconveniencing residents, particularly those dependent on bus lines. In addition, they calculate that more taxpayer money must be spent, even after privatization, to redeem public enterprise bonds the city has issued to maintain bus operations and secure financial resources to pay retirement allowances to employees who must resign.
Under the controversial circumstances, discussions over the privatization plan to split the subway system from the bus business in Osaka are expected to possibly become characterized by more fierce debate in September as city council members supportive of many of Hashimoto's reform ideas argue with those who are not.
But local media noted that the central issue for Osakans who frankly voiced their opinions during the transportation bureau's meetings is the future of public bus services, where drivers' average annual income is more than 7.3 million yen (about 74, 600 U.S. dollars), about 1.6 times higher than those employed by private operators in Osaka and the surrounding Kansai region.