So I made a point of visiting areas where population was relatively sparse: the south and east of the island of Shikoku; the inland areas of the southern island of Kyushu; and the entire northern island of Hokkaido. I've put together a couple of documentary videos with footage from my trip to Hokkaido; what follows is based on parts of the video narrative.
Hokkaido proved the best example, especially for us here in Michigan. It is at exactly the same lattitude as the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (though it gets more snow!). It's just slightly smaller in area than the Lower Peninsula. The population density is slightly less than Michigan's. Yes, you read the right: it's *less* densely populated. We'll get to the figures in a moment.
Hokkaido is Japan's predominant agricultural area. It leads the country in the production of rice and fish, and shares the lead in vegetable farming. The productivity of Hokkaido rice land is 10 percent above the national average. Wheat, barley and potatoes are other staple crops, and dairy farming is a Hokkaido specialty.
Although there is some industry (most notably paper milling, brewing [Sapporo beer!], steel-making, oil refining, building supplies, marine services and food production), most of the population is employed in the service sector. Tourism is an important industry, especially during the cool summertime that attracts campers and hot spring-goers from across Japan. During the winter, skiing and other winter sports continue to bring tourists to Hokkaido. Does that sound like what we might be looking at in Michigan's future?
Let's compare passenger rail systems in Michigan and Hokkaido. What is the actual relationship between population density and rail service? Since Hokkaido, at 173 people per square mile, is actually just a little less dense than Michigan, where we find an average of 179 in each square mile, we might predict that Hokkaido's rail service is similar or a little less that Michigan's.
What we find is radically different. Michigan has no commuter rail, no urban subways, no city street rail, no rail connections to any airports, and ten daily Amtrak round-trips, all starting or ending in Chicago and only serving the southern part of the state. Michigan does have five north-south expressways and three east-west ones.
Hokkaido, with slightly less density, has 4 commuter lines, 3 subway lines, five street rail lines; 72 daily round trips between the Sapporo regional airport and three cities, and about 154 intercity trains, serving every corner of the island. But Hokkaido has only one north-south freeway and one east-west limited access highway, neither of which reach the corners of the island, and one of which is still under construction.
Why this difference? Not population density, though Hokkaido's rugged topography has tended to concentrate population somewhat in valleys and along the seacoast, which has not happened so much on Michigan's "pleasant peninsulas". Both, however, have areas of concentrated population that could easily be served by rail.
Both Hokkaido and Michigan began serious settlement during the ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, with rugged, pioneering types coming to trade for fur with indigenous people, to fish, to mine, to harvest lumber, and to farm. But while Michigan became a manufacturing powerhouse in the twentieth century, Hokkaido remained primarily agricultural. Both Hokkaido and Michigan were served by extensive rail systems during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Michigan's rail network was reduced much further in the late 20th century than was Hokkaido's.
So why the difference? It can be attributed largely to government policies in the post World War II era. Early in the 20th century, all of Japan's trunk railways were nationalized. Naturally, Japanese railways suffered heavy damage during World War II; they were reogranized in 1949 by directive of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's US General Headquarters in Tokyo as Japanese National Railways (JNR), a state-owned corporation.
JNR was operated professionally and was on the forefront of high-speed rail technology, developing the first dedicated high-speed railway in the world, the famed Shinkansen "bullet train", which began service in 1964. Unfortunately, JNR was also a favorite source of "pork" for members of the national legislature. Hundreds of unnecessary lines were built and services legislated by grasping politicians, eager to secure their reelection through favors to their home districts. (Where have we heard this story before?) By 1987, JNR's debt was over $200 billion USD and the company was spending 147% of its income - in spite of Japan's overall density of 888 people per square mile.
To put the railways beyond the grasp of politicians, JNR was privatized in 1987 and divided into seven companies, one of which is the Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido). (In case you wondered, the six regional JR passenger operating companies own and maintain their own rails and stations, unlike the British system, in which a nation-wide company owns and maintains the infrastructure, and several competitive passenger and freight companies operate trains.)
Meanwhile, the United States after World War II spent lavishly on the Interstate Highway System. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the total cost of the Interstate system was nearly $1.4 trillion USD between 1958 and 1991, the period during which the system was officially under construction. [http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/interstate.cfm] Unfortunately, our road system doesn't pay for itself through user fees, and has required propping up from general funds for the last few years.
To get a handle on the relative spending: the Japanese subsidized its railways by about $1700 USD per person. During approximately the same period, the US spent about $6,000 USD per person, meaning the Japanese citizen got his high-speed and regional rail system for about 29% of what the US citizen paid for his high-speed road system. Of course, the US spent some money on passenger rail during that time - but not much; and Japan spent money on limited-access highways. The US has far greater distances to cover as well.
The trend is clear, though: the US wants its transportation money spent on highways; Japan wants its spent on railways. The effect on population growth patterns is profound. The Japanese rail system subsidized dense urban growth, while the US highway system subsidized difuse suburban growth, popularly known as "sprawl". Nowhere has that been more pronounced than in Michigan, headquarters and devoted fan of the US automobile industry. Only after being afflicted with repeated oil crises has Michigan begun to consider beefing up its urban rail service with commuter and light rail in Detroit, and light rail in Grand Rapids.
Yet in Japan, including sparsely-populated Hokkaido, the railway company earns a profit. JR Hokkaido's bank balance was 68M USD as of March 2008. If you're interested in a more complete business report, a good source is an article in Japan Railway & Transport Review from March 2008, titled "Increasing Efforts to Strengthen Position as Leading Transportation Provider in Hokkaido", written by JR Hokkaido's Management Planning Department. (http://www.jrtr.net/jrtr50/topics.html)
Yes, there is government support, particularly for construction of new high-speed lines (now progressing in Kyushu and Hokkaido). But diversification is a strength and a theme of all the railway companies of Japan. Ever since serious abuses by US "rail barons" in late 19th century, anti-trust legislation here has strictly limited what US rail companies can own and what businesses they can engage in. JR Hokkaido has used diversification quite creatively to turn a profit.
A look through JR Hokkaido's Web site (roughly translated by Google) shows the company owns grocery stores, convenience stores, retail kiosks in stations; a medical clinic in Sapporo station; hotels in each of three cities and two in Sapporo; financial services (including stock trading, accounting, and a debit/ticket card); 3 hot springs resorts; 8 quick-cut ten-minute barber shops, bus lines that connect with trains; a travel agency; a toxic and sensitive waste disposal service; a driving school(!); urban development projects; and 10 major station retail and office properties, including a 38-story office tower on Sapporo Station, the tallest building in Hokkaido. One popular JR Hokkaido property is an amusement center under the elevated tracks near Sapporo station, with Internet-enabled "manga cafe", DVD players, TV, billiards, darts, massage chairs, and a large N-guage model railroad layout.
Hokkaido Railway has succeeded in avoiding red ink since 1997 not only by diversification, but by what might be considered "best practices": 1. Invest in infrastructure, maintenance, and cleanliness; 2. Research and develop better ways to provide rail service; 3. Develop a culture of meticulous attention to detail, especially in safety and punctuality; 4. Schedule and dispatch trains with extreme precision
If US passenger services followed these "best practices" and were allowed to diversify, who knows what we might see?