The Sanriku Railway Company – affectionately called “Santetsu” – runs along the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture in Japan. It’s a small third-sector railway (a public/private partnership) with two lines: the North Rias Line which runs from Miyako north to Kuji, and the South Rias Line which runs from Kamaishi south to Sakari.
Being on the coast of Iwate, the railroad and the communities it serves were directly in harm’s way when the region was inundated by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. The railroad company lost almost all its infrastructure. The South Rias Line was 100% destroyed, and the North Rias Line was heavily damaged with a large section in the middle washed away. Within a few days of the earthquake, they were able to reopen the northern end of the North Rias Line. Their present plans call for having both lines fully operational in April, 2014.
While delivering toys to children on the coast for the Omocha Express charity in February, 2012, I had an opportunity to ride Santetsu’s North Rias Line from Miyako to Omoto, the last station before the destroyed section. On the trip I was accompanied by my wife Stefanie, Naoto Kodama of Iwate Rail Modelers’ Circle (IRC), and Atsushi Tomite, a member of both IRC and Santetsu. (Omocha Express is a partnership between JRM, IRC, and Santetsu.)
We arrived at Miyako Station bright and early on a Tuesday morning. It’s a small station right in the heart of Miyako, with Santetsu’s main office on the second floor. The inside of the station is decorated with messages of support from all over Japan. Santetsu may be a small railroad, but it is well-loved! There were even messages sent by CSX and MARC railroads in the US. Kodama-san directed us to buy our tickets at the window instead of using the automated machine so that we could get heavy cardboard keepsake tickets instead of the standard paper ones.
While we waited among the uniformed high-school students intent on their cell phones, Tomite-san explained that the train we were boarding had been in the station the day of the earthquake. Although the tsunami did not quite reach the station, the office lost power and heat. The train runs on diesel, so the office workers moved into the train where they could have electricity and heat.
He also pointed out the big white X’s over the railroad signal heads. The signaling system was still out of service, so all signaling on the line was being handled by flagmen. He said they expected to have the signals operational sometime in March.
Shortly before departure time, a Santetsu employee with a vest, hardhat, and flags moved to the front of the platform, and gave us the departure signal right on time. I was surprised how smoothly the train glided out of the station, since other diesel passenger trains I’ve ridden in Japan have felt a bit like riding in a truck. The Iwate coast is very abrupt, with green mountains rising straight out of the sea between steep, narrow valleys and fjords. We had a beautiful sunny day to enjoy the varied scenery and glimpses of glistening ocean between tunnels.
At first, the route ran a bit inland where there was little evidence of tsunami damage along the way. In tunnels, when there was no scenery to enjoy outside, I turned my attention to the interior of the train. The inside was plastered with messages and drawings sent by people all over Japan to show their support. Many of the drawings featured “Alice”, a young woman character created to represent Santetsu in the “Railway Daughters” line of toy figures. One even depicted Alice giving a toy “Santetsu-kun” railroad mascot to a child as the child wiped away a tear – I thought it captured the spirit of Omocha Express perfectly!
After a few stations, we emerged from a tunnel into the Tarō area. Between the railroad and the sea, we could see a flat expanse of land with only foundations stretching out to the shining sea, a low ridge with a few scraggly trees on it, a brand new highway, and some smaller-than-expected piles of rubble. Towards the shore, cranes and other construction equipment were at work. As the train glided smoothly to a stop in the station, Tomite-san explained that before the tsunami, you could not see the ocean from there. The view had been obscured by buildings and trees, now gone. The tsunami had finally stopped directly under the elevated Tarō Station.
Omoto station, currently as far as you can go from Miyako, was two stops later. Just before Omoto station the train crosses a distinctive suspension bridge. As in Miyako, a flagman was at the station to signal the train in, and our rail trip came to an end.
The elevated station gave us a commanding view of the valley. The area around the station is not heavily developed, so we could see quite a ways in every direction. Tomite-san pointed out a road sign out between the station and the sea, and told us that was how far the tsunami had come. Up the valley in the opposite direction, temporary housing was arranged in neat rows, row after row.
We waited until the train left for its return to Miyako, then continued our trip by car to visit schools and give out toys. First, though, we drove to the site of the next station on the line – or rather, where the station had been. An elevated station in a narrow valley between two tunnels, Shimanokoshi Station and the bridges connecting it to the tunnels were completely washed away. All that remained were the first few steps up to the station, now eerily leading nowhere, and a stone monument that happened to be oriented in such a way that it was strong against the wave.
We walked up to where the broken and twisted tracks emerged from a tunnel. The track was shifted off the roadbed and ballast, and bits of household detritus – a toothbrush, a blanket, a broken “Miffy” cup – were lodged under the rails. Tomite-san said the tsunami had actually hit the next valley first, and rose faster over there, so that it gushed through the tunnel into this valley ahead of the main wave from the sea.
Towards the ocean, we saw the remains of a sea wall. Immense solid blocks of concrete the size of houses had been shifted and toppled by the force of the tsunami. Within the valley, everything was destroyed except for two houses up on the hillside. Apparently, the tsunami reached the yards of those houses before it stopped. The people in those houses still live there. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them to open their front doors in the morning and see that empty valley where their town used to be.
Like everywhere else we went on the coast, though, I felt a sense of hope at Shimanokoshi. Rebuilding efforts are well under way, much of the cleanup has been completed, and construction was everywhere. It was great to see how much support there is for Santetsu from Japan and the world. I look forward to taking a longer ride in the future, when they are back to 100% operational!