Why do so many Japanese ferries still exist?
June 26, 2022 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Yes, yes, Island Nation etc. etc., but it still seems like they run more ferries than are actually necessary? Why?

Many Japanese ferries appear to be borderline nonsensical -- for example, Shinmoji to Osaka takes roughly fourteen hours. Driving would take less than half that time and, while I am definitely NOT au courant with truck fuel consumption, it nevertheless seems like driving may be cheaper? Even accounting for randomly bonkers traffic, driving is substantially faster than taking the ferry.

So why do they still run a vehicle ferry? And why does it appear to be almost deserted?

I just don't understand how the logistics and financing could possibly work, but it must work, so where can I read more about this?
posted by aramaic to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I found a paper that seems like it goes into the topic in depth:
Japan has one of the world’s largest networks of remote island liner services. As with other remote island lifeline services, operators face similar problems such as traffic imbalances, seasonality, and inadequate fare levels. Many of these liner operations, and hence the communities they serve, depend on state subsidy for survival. This paper explains the subsidy system for remote island liner services in Japan. It provides analysis of some of the industry’s difficulties, in the face of diminishing traffic flows, and national budget constraints. Several proposals are offered in an effort to help modernise what is a particularly fragmented shipping system, and to aid decision makers in their quest to ensure long-term stability of the industry.
Not ferries exactly (remote liners are not the same thing as inland ferries to be sure) but according to my search there is some overlap.

Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/palgrave.ijme.9100005
posted by circular at 7:04 PM on June 26, 2022 [4 favorites]

As a rule, water transport is always cheaper than overland (or air) transport, and always (AFAIK) much lower emission.

My dad works for a company that handles iron in the mountains of western NC. It is dramatically, dramatically cheaper for them to truck the iron to Knoxville, then put it on a barge that goes down the Tennessee (through various TVA locks and dams) to the Ohio, to the Mississippi, then up the Mississippi to the Illinois, then to Peoria, where the company they deal with in Peoria has its own dock for barges, because it is SO. MUCH. CHEAPER. It takes something like ten times as long to ship it by barge as it would take to truck it overland, but it is just. that. much. cheaper. that the extra time is totally worth it.

Rail transit in the US (where it's cheapest) is around $2.50/mile/ton, while water transit is around $0.80/mile/ton, and that's when you have to pay to go through canals (that you have to pay for, and sometimes wait for). Trucking (again in the US, where it's very cheap) is around $5/mile/ton.

In terms of human safety, roads are far more dangerous than ferries. And in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the "discount" for water shipping is usually calculated at 75%. (That is, a ton of goods shipped by barge emits only 25% of what that same ton shipped by rail would emit.) But the number is usually much higher; typical actual calculations come in around river barges emit 6-7% of the greenhouse gas of an equivalent rail or road journey. (Ocean transit varies, particularly depending on whether the ship has to go through the Suez or Panama Canals, but is similarly cheaper in cost and emissions.)

Anyway, mostly-empty ferries are operating because they're much, much cheaper to operate than roads -- and require far less upkeep! Tunnels and bridges require constant maintenance. Rivers and seas are just ... there. You can safely ignore them, and they'll keep being there, and they'll keep being basically the same amount of safe and navigable. They may need dredging every few years, and mapping, but you can look at the cost of dredging a river channel vs. maintaining a highway, and the river channel will always win. (Plus probably your national military pays for continually surveying your waterways and possibly for the navigation buoys.) Those mostly-empty ferries are probably also carrying cargo. I mean, not 1500 tons of iron, but maybe a container load of washing machines or a few pallets of electronics or something.

But it is very difficult to overstate how cheap barges and ferries and ocean-going ships are compared to air, road, and rail! SO CHEAP! And so environmentally-friendly! It is almost always worth someone's time to save that much money, and they're so inexpensive to run even when they're not full that it makes sense to keep running them even if they're underutilized.

If you happen to live near a river that's used for shipping, it's worth your time to a) read your local government's reports on shipping costs on the river (it will be very boosterish on how cheap it is!) and b) spend a day sitting along the river and watch how many barges and car ferries and other commercial ships go by. It's so many more than you realize, if you don't spend all day watching the river! You might now and then be driving on a bridge over the river and be like, "Oh, neat, barge." But if you spend a day there, you might see 20 different commercial vessels or barge tugs (pushing 15 barges) transporting 50,000 tons of goods/day (the rate along my local, boring, slow river where I only see barges every now-and-again.) Plus all the recreational boaters who make use of the same waterways! (Where I am, it's kayakers and small motorboats for fishermen, but if you're on an ocean or a big inland lake you'll get to see lots of sailcraft!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 PM on June 26, 2022 [70 favorites]

Neither ferry-specific nor japan-specific: energy efficiency of transporting stuff and people is discussed in David MacKay's book sustainable energy - without the hot air: see Chapter 15 Stuff, and Chapter 20 - Better Transport.

If you like Eyebrows McGee's answer, you may also get something out of Marc Levinson's book The Box. Focus is on the shipping container and mostly on the US, with also a bunch of stuff about costs of transport, regulation, struggle between labour and capital. Japan features at one point, where container ships carrying supplies from the US to Vietnam to supply US troops during the war began carrying Japanese exports back to the US on the return leg.
posted by are-coral-made at 8:24 PM on June 26, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For commercial trucks, specifically -- an overnight ferry can make sense because it allows the driver to sleep while still moving. The driver could do a full shift during the day at one location, sleep on the ferry, and be fully rested to do a full days drive on the far end. It appears that Japan's commercial trucking regulations have both a maximum hours per day, and a maximum hours per month on-duty, so getting more distance without increasing the number of hours on-duty would be an obvious win.
posted by yuwtze at 8:28 PM on June 26, 2022 [9 favorites]

While the carbon emissions of bulk sea shipping, and to a lesser degree containerized sea shipping, are less per tonne of cargo moved the same distance as by rail or truck, this is not true when you are talking about a ferry, where heavy trucks are driving onto the ship. For a ferry with heavy trucks on it, the carbon emissions per tonne-kilometre are higher than a truck on the road. There may be a reduction in carbon emissions if the sea distance is significantly shorter than the road distance.

The cost and carbon emissions of shipping bulk materials on barges has very little to do with the cost and carbon emissions of transporting cargo-carrying vehicles on ferries.
posted by ssg at 8:47 PM on June 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In the SF Bay Area, part of the justification for ferries (despite fairly high per passenger mile carbon emissions) is disaster resilience. Having a fleet of fairly high capacity fast boats that can go a lot of places offers a lot of options should, say, an earthquake take out major bridges. I wonder if there are similar concerns in a nation that has both high earthquake and tsunami risks that might make subsidizing boat services attractive.
posted by straw at 9:04 PM on June 26, 2022 [31 favorites]

Best answer: ". I wonder if there are similar concerns in a nation that has both high earthquake and tsunami risks that might make subsidizing boat services attractive."

Definitely after the tsunamis that impacted Fukushima, Japan's ferry network was operating basically immediately with far less disruption than damaged roads and rails, and served a critical disaster-aftermath role.

Similarly after 9/11 all the Staten Island ferries engaged in the biggest boat lift since Dunkirk. They're low-key convenient until there's an emergency, at which point they become essential
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:27 AM on June 27, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: One of the big reasons for the ferry system is that they carry necessities and other goods to the islands, very few of which are self-sufficient in any real way. The Tokyo seven islands are a pretty solid example. While several (if not all) of the islands have air strips, the cost of supplying the islands with goods would be prohibitive. People on islands need electronic goods, cars, pretty much anything, just like people on the main islands, and the only real choice is to send it by boat.

Even with seemingly nonsensical large island to large island ferries, there is a good chance that cargo is the main reason, and carrying people is the cherry on top, since, as mentioned, ocean freight is often remarkably cheaper than shipping by truck (especially with Japanese tolls, etc).

Past that, any move to end ferries would essentially be a declaration that the nation is abandoning the people on those islands. There isn't any realistic way to supply them with the things they need outside of the (heavily subsidized) ferries, and any attempts to cut that off would almost certainly become a national level scandal.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:17 AM on June 27, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I've been watching a lot of a YouTuber called Solo Travel Japan who does dialog-free videos (except for the occasional subtitled comment) of various travel methods in Japan, including overnight ferries - here's his video of the Osaka-Shinmoji route.

One thing that strikes me is that these ferries are more like cruise ships, with often luxurious interiors, and various levels of affordable sleeping options. So as a passenger, for less than the cost of a train ticket you get to your destination early in the morning and save a night in a hotel.

The end of the video linked above also shows the huge number of trucks leaving the ferry, and he says "This is how ferry companies make money". Some not-terrible discussion in the comments about this as well.
posted by Gortuk at 10:39 AM on June 27, 2022 [9 favorites]

Remember also that sometimes ferry traffic is heavier in one direction than in another, for example everyone commuting into town in the morning. so if you see one that's almost empty, it may be almost full on the way back.
posted by kindall at 11:20 AM on June 27, 2022

Heh, EyebrowsMcGee, my father was like QA/Engineer at a steel fabrication plant. Ginormous erector set things. I'm sure the logistics of things had a big bit of "can we even get it there". Like bridges and turns and road weight limits.

My first thought also was disaster recovery. Earthquake, etc. if the boat still floats it's a safe as it ever was, bridges and tunnels and rails... not so much. Infrastructure.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:34 PM on June 27, 2022

And so environmentally-friendly!

In terms of GHG emitted per tonne-km, sure.

In terms of other pollution (NOx, SOx and particulates) , large ships use the heaviest, sulfurous diesel - to my knowledge ,heavier than trains and definitely heavier than trucks.....mostly without scrubbing, and are FILTHY emitters consequently.
posted by lalochezia at 8:12 AM on June 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

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