Japan's Tsunami-hit Railway Resuming Full Services with Kuwait's Aid

KAMAISHI, Japan, April 5 (KUNA) - Disaster-hit railway in northeastern Japan began to resume full services on Saturday with funds provided by Kuwait after a three-year hiatus, as the last remaining two damaged sections were finally restored.

Sanriku Railway operates a 107.6-km track along the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture, comprising two lines -- the North Rias Line and the South Rias Line, both essential for local people's life. But it was forced to suspend operations after its train cars, rails, bridges and stations were wrecked by a magnitude 9.0-quake and ensuring tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Saturday marked full recovery of the South Rias Line with the restoration of a 15-km stretch which had been out of service. The neighboring North Rias Line will be back in full operations on Sunday. Commemorating the full-scale return, Sanriku Railway introduced five new railcars, each costs JPY 160 million (USD 1.6 million), including a retro car and a traditional Japanese house look-alike car.

The new carriages were purchased with financial aid from Kuwait. In April last year, Kuwait also helped the company buy three brand-new carriages on the occasion of the partial re-launch of the South Rias Line. Following the 2011 catastrophe, upon directives of His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Kuwait donated 5 million barrels of crude oil to Japan, equivalent to some USD 500 million, of which sales proceeds were distributed to the three hardest-hit prefectures including Iwate.

A message of appreciation for Kuwaiti assistance, saying "We greatly appreciate the support from the State of Kuwait." in Japanese, English and Arabic languages are written on the side of the all eight train cars, while the national emblem of Kuwait is drawn at their head and back.

Kuwaiti Ambassador to Japan Abdulrahman Al-Otaibi and his wife Jamilah celebrated the resumption of full service on the South Rias Line with officials and local people. Prior to a grand opening ceremony, the ambassador, his wife and other guests were invited for a 90-minute trip with a newly-launched retro car, on which the ambassador put a head mark upon the inauguration.

President Masahiko Mochizuki declared the full resumption of train services on the line. The inaugural train also carried 48 excited passengers who won a lottery to be the first riders. Commemorative train tickets are also sold.

In a ceremony at Kamaishi Station, about 430 km northeast of Tokyo, Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Parliamentary Secretary for Reconstruction Agency Manabu Sakai said, "The resumption of full services of Sanriku Railway makes the local people realize the revival of the affected area, and is expected to push forward the reconstruction process." Sanriku Railway was established in 1984 as a joint public-private venture, playing many roles for residents, including for commute and access to high schools, hospitals and shopping. It has drawn nationwide attention after it became the model of a railway company in popular TV drama series "Amachan" last year. The drama, which lifted the spirits of the people in the disaster-hit areas, helped boost the number of passengers.

In addition to the purchase of the eight railcars, the money was also used for reconstruction of damaged five station buildings and another facility. Nearly 320 points on the two railway lines were damaged; including bridges and stations, and about JPY 9.2 billion (USD 90 million) is estimated for the reconstruction.

Governor of Iwate Prefecture Takuya Tasso, who doubles as Chairman of Sanriku Railway, shared a word of appreciation for Kuwait's substantial support as well as enormous efforts and cooperation by everyone concerned.

"The new retro car was introduced with Kuwait's assistance. Sanriku Railway is an important tool for life of residents and crucial infrastructure for the inter-regional interchange and regional development, such as tourism. It is also considered as a driving force for the revitalization of the ravaged-Sanriku coast," Tasso said in his speech.

"The full resumption of the South Rias Line will give local residents hope and courage, and repay the people from Iwate, Japan and all over the world for their support," the governor stressed.

"The disaster left around 19,000 people dead or missing in the northeastern region, including more than 5,800 Iwate residents. Calling fiscal 2014 "Full-fledged Reconstruction Year," Tasso said the prefectural government will further advance post-disaster reconstruction efforts to create an environment in which all the disaster victims can live without anxiety.

Local residents and railway users celebrated the restoration of full services with joy, gathering at stations with banners and Kuwaiti flags to welcome the trains along the South Rias Line.

"I used to live in a house within just a two minute-walk from a railway station, but giant tsunami waves swallowed my house and now live in temporary house. The restoration of Sanriku Railway lightens me up so much, and I cannot stop crying today. I feel like I'm dreaming now. Please convey our gratitude to the Kuwaiti people. Thank you, Kuwait," a woman in her 70s told Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) with tears.

An elderly couple who rode on the memorial train said their daughter has given them winning passenger tickets. "She gave us an unforgettable gift to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary. We have been looking forward to seeing the full restoration of Sanriku Railway, and finally it made a comeback," the couple said.

Speaking to the crowd of reporters after the ceremony, Ambassador Al-Otaibi expressed his pleasure to join celebrations and pledged Kuwait's continued support to Japan's reconstruction effort.

"Kuwait is committed to support our friends. The Kuwaiti people and the government never forget Japan's support to Kuwait since the country's independence. We wish the Japanese people to overcome this crisis and I am sure they are capable to do so. I am so glad to see the reconstruction progress today," said the Kuwaiti diplomat.

For her part, Jamilah told reporters, "I am very happy to celebrate the restoration of the railway with local people. I will never forget this day, and it is also the best day in my life." (end)
By Miyoko Ishigami (with photos)