25 May, 2024

Yokosuka line, the disused branch line and its ruins

Yokosuka line is a suburban railway in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is 24 km (15 miles) long. It technically connects Ofuna and Kurihama stations, but most trains are extended to Tokyo (including Shonan-Shinjuku line services). The line was once one of the most important railway in Japan as there was Yokosuka Naval District. Today, Yokosuka is known for having the headquarter of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

As Yokosuka line had been important for military purposes for more than 100 years, there were a few military installations until recently. Once of them remains near Taura station. Taura is approximately 64 km (40 miles) south of Tokyo and it is now a small station with just around 2,000 daily users. There are only three trains per hour on each direction at the daytime, with only one to and from Yokohama or Tokyo.

An industrial railway branched off until 2006. The railway was owned by Sagami Transportation & Warehouse Co., Ltd. and it was extensively constructed at Nagaura port. There are three tunnels on the western edge of the platform: the disused railway on the left, down main line (towards Yokosuka and Kurihama) in the middle and up main line (towards Zushi, Yokohama and Tokyo) on the right.

The industrial railway was constructed by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1889, five years earlier than Taura station itself. The railway was strictly controlled by the Navy so that there is little information about its history, but it is said that not only military supplies but also goods including Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corporation (now JT) products were also transported from here to Tokyo.

The railway was requisitioned by the U.S. Navy after the Second World War. Nagaura port was used by Americans as a major port hub in the region. One of the most important facility here is Azuma Storage Area, which is still controlled by the United States even today. Freight trains carrying jet fuel had been despatched frequently to Naval Air Facility Atsugi. The freight trains were managed by Japanese National Railways until 1984 and by JR Freight from 1987 to 1998. The industrial railway was officially closed in 2006.

There were disused bridges, level crossings and even English signboards until around 2010, but most of them have been removed by JR East and the local authorities, but tracks still remain on the pavement today. There are two disused diamond crossings, which are extremely rare in Japan.

The disused tracks disappear near the petrol storage of the Self Defence Forces. The tracks went further and it looked like a tram track in the tunnel (in other words, cars and trains ran together) in the past, but there was no trace of them today.

This is a rough sketch of the disused railway. A blue line shows Yokosuka line tracks that are operational today. Yellow lines show how extensive the industrial railway was, and the red line shows the tracks accessible without permission (i.e. on the public road).

Unlike in Europe, disused railways in Japan are often removed shortly after they were permanently closed. However, the one here in Taura still remains though nearly 20 years have passed since its closure. The ruins of the railway are likely to remain for a while as this area is mostly abandoned, but those who are interested in them should consider visiting the area before it is too late, as the ruins may suddenly disappear one day.

12 May, 2024

A long ticket that ticket barriers cannot accept

This is a ticket I recently purchased at a JR station. It is a simple standard single fare ticket from Kozukue to Okayama, but looks disproportionately long…not just the distance but also the size of the ticket.

They are three tickets that JR companies issue at stations. The first one is for a short journey, the most common one. The second and the third ones are so-called MARS tickets, which are issued for a longer trip as well as for limited express services including Shinkansen high-speed trains. MARS stands for Magnetic electronic Automatic seat Reservation System (previously Multi Access Reservation System), a train reservation system used by JR group and relevant travel agencies.

Generally speaking, a MARS ticket is 85 mm (3.35 inches) long just like a credit card, but the larger one is 120 mm (4.72 inches) long. In my case, the route was so complicated and long that it was issued as the 120-mm one. In fact, staff added two more routes by handwriting as the computer dropped a few letters.

My journey was from Kozukue station in Yokohama city to Okayama station, but its route was complicated. I went to Tachikawa and got out of a ticket barrier for a few hours, and went back to Yokohama. Three days later, I resumed my trip towards west, went out of a ticket barrier at Okayama station to grab some food and headed to Tsuyama where my grandmother lives. Then, I visited Niimi for sightseeing and finished the journey at Okayama.

According to JR regulations, any route can be chosen unless a holder passes the same station twice. This rule looks simple but it actually is not in major cities like Tokyo. For example, part of Keihin-Tohoku and Yokosuka lines are treated as the same as Tokaido Main line. There are also complicated rules on Shonan-Shinjuku line that often result in route duplication (technically void route). On the other hand, a passenger going from Kawasaki (Tokaido line) or Shin-Kawasaki (Yokosuka line) to Kikuna or further north on Yokohama line can enjoy an exemption despite technically being between Higashi-Kanagawa and Yokohama twice.

The table above has been simplified to make it easy to understand (though still complicated). Fare calculation is generally based on actual distance, but JR group has another complicated rules. First, high-speed railways have been regarded as the same as "Main Line" railways that lie parallel to. For example, Tokaido Shinkansen uses the same distance as Tokaido Main line despite bullet trains actually run a shorter route. Second, a different fare scheme has been applied to some rural railways (namely Tsuyama and Kishin lines here). Hence, each train journeys have been converted to longer figures than actual distances.

Even so, this annoyingly long ticket is cheaper than splitting the whole journey. Had I bought tickets separately, it would have been a few thousand yen more expensive than that.

A symbol on the bottom-right of the ticket shows that automatic ticket barriers cannot be used so that I had to ask a station staff for getting in and out every time.

The 120 mm ticket is rare, but there are a few other cases. Some special discount tickets such as Seishun 18 Ticket are as such. Room tickets of sleeper trains (namely Sunrise Izumo and Sunrise Seto) are also long. Furthermore, very few tickets that cover both JR and private railway lines are 120 mm, but they are extremely rare in these days.

27 April, 2024

Keikyu Akafuda Train

In May 2014, a red train ran Keikyu Daishi line. Keikyu trains have always been red, but this one was completely red. Unit no. 1501 of 1500 series was fully painted red without any white band, which was named "Akafuda Train". It was designed to celebrate once-a-decade religious event at Heiken-ji temple, commonly known as Kawasaki Daishi.

Kawasaki Daishi is one of the most important temple in the Greater Tokyo Area, established in 1128. It is said to be the origin of hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of each year. On average, three million people visit Kawasaki Daishi on 1-3 January every year and pray for their good fortune, health and being free from traffic accidents.

Like most temples, the principal object of worship is not usually open to the public, but it is available for everyone once every ten years. It is a statue of Kukai, one of the most important monk in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

During the visit, a talisman called akafuda is given to each visitor. The letters on a small piece of paper are said to be written initially by Kukai himself, and each charm is handcrafted by monks with blessing.

This event has been celebrated by Keikyu several times. Given the history of Keikyu that the line opened in 1899 to transport passengers to and from Kawasaki Daishi, it is not surprising that Keikyu did something special last time in 2014. The Akafuda Train ran only Daishi line during the event (excluding a few empty coaching stock movements). It was also displayed at Kurihama Factory on 25 May when it was opened to the public.

The Akafuda Train next to an ordinary 1500 series train. Keikyu staff just obscured white bands, but the fully-red train looked very different to what was supposed to be. The Train was restored to its original style on the first day of June, and the signboard under the windscreen was dedicated to Kawasaki Daishi, and it is still saved there.

Ten years have passed since then, and the event is scheduled in May 2024. Daishi line is no longer served by the 1500 series, and the oldest rolling stock for the branch line is now 600 series. A few trains will be decorated with stickers during the period, which is not as impressive as the Akafuda Train back in 2014, but still better than nothing.

13 April, 2024

Trains and Buses - Coexistence or Replacement?

JR East and Northen Iwate Transportation have launched an experimental one-year scheme with regard to trains and buses between Morioka and Miyako in the northeast region of Japan. JR passengers who have a valid train ticket that covers JR Yamada line can also get on a coach (except for a few stations). However, those who have a coach ticket cannot choose trains as this scheme is unilateral. It may be beneficial for not only local residents but also long-distance travellers, but it could potentially lead to a permanent closure of Yamada line.

Morioka is the capital city of Iwate Prefecture with more than 280,000 people, and it is about 530 km (330 miles) north of Tokyo. It has not generally been regarded as a popular tourist destination by Japanese people, but The New York Times placed it in the second in its "52 Places to Go in 2023" list after London.

Miyako is a city roughly 68 km (42 miles) east of Morioka with a population of around 46,000 people. Miyako has been well known for fishing industry for centuries (such as salmons, cods and sea urchins) as well as manufacturing industry especially pumps, centrifuges and fertiliser.

There has been a high demand for transportation between these two cities. There are mountains in between so that both rail and road transportation have suffered from steep gradients. JR Yamada line opened in 1934, but most local residents have preferred coach service since 1978 when National Route 106 (a road parallel to Yamada line) opened. The coach route is called "106 Express Bus", and Northen Iwate Transportation provides the service more frequently than JR East though costs slightly more. A single fare between Morioka and Miyako by coach is 2,200 yen while by train costs 1,980 yen.

Morioka → Miyako
 JR Yamada line  Bus 106 
 5:45 → 8:00 
 6:32 → 9:01  7:40 → 9:55 
 9:40 → 11:20 
 10:40 → 12:20 
 11:09 → 13:30  11:40 → 13:20 
 12:45 → 15:00 
 13:12 → 15:31  13:45 → 15:25 
 14:45 → 16:25 
 15:45 → 17:25 
 16:45 → 19:00 
 17:46 → 20:21  17:45 → 19:25 
 19:00 → 21:15 

Yamada line has not been useful in spite of efforts by JR East. The company has been using KiHa 100 series since 2007, which is far more comfortable and energy-saving than obsolete KiHa 52 and KiHa 58 trains, and journey time has been shortened since then. The company also rearranged the schedules to make train connection with Tohoku Shinkansen to and from Tokyo better. Rails were replaced with newer ones that allow faster speed and signalling systems have been upgraded. More trains than before were provided in the 2010s to attract more local residents but it was unsuccessful. Today, only a few passengers to and from other cities like Tokyo and Sendai use the train.

Therefore, JR has decided to look for cooperation with the bus company rather than trying to win a race against it. As bus operators across the country have struggled with staff shortages, it may be beneficial for the bus company as well. This experiment is one of a few positive trials that public transport companies in Japan have recently started.

The only concern is that there are too small number of rail services. The experimental scheme is likely to result in far more long-distance passengers shifting to coach. As ridership of Yamada line declines further, JR East may consider closing the line in the future. If the scheme becomes permanent, it would be hard to justify keeping the railway open.

The scheme is available from 1 April 2024 to 31 March 2025, but could be extended for a while if both companies wish to do so.

06 April, 2024

The New Yakumo

Today, a brand new 273 series train entered into limited express Yakumo services that connect Okayama and Izumoshi in western Japan. This article focuses on the new and old trains and briefly looks back its history with timetables.

Origin of its name

Day-time limited express trains of Japanese National Railways and JR Group are usually named after birds or names of places. For example, Shirasagi (Nagoya – Tsuruga) means egret and Azusa (Shinjuku – Matsumoto) was named after Azusa River. Yakumo is neither of them. Its origin is an ancient Japanese phrase "yakumo tatsu" (八雲立つ) that has been used in poems, first appeared in the oldest literary work in the country called Kojiki that dates back to 712 AD.

"Yakumo tatsu" literally means countless clouds coming up the sky, and this phrase is mostly followed by the word "Izumo" in ancient poems such as waka. Those who are interested in it should also check makura kotoba (lit. pillow words).

The new Yakumo

Limited Express Yakumo has been connecting Okayama and Izumoshi via San-yo Main, Hakubi and San'in Main Lines since 1982, and it is 220 km (137 miles) long. There are 15 services a day on each direction (i.e. hourly), though some of them do not run on certain days. The fastest service takes 2 hours and 57 minutes.

The 273 series was developed specifically for Yakumo. Hakubi Line is known for having tight curves with steep gradients as well as heavy snow in winter. These severe conditions did not allow ordinary trains running fast safely and comfortably so that JR West decided to introduce the brand new trains rather than reallocating redundant train units from other places. According to the company, computer-controlled tilting features of the 273 series make train far more comfortable than old rolling stock.

Six out of 15 Yakumo services are provided by the new trains so far, and the other nine will also be the 273 series by 15 June this year. Each service is formed of four coaches, but some of them could be formed of eight during holidays.

Old Yakumo

381 series has been in service since electrification of Hakubi and San'in Main Line in 1982. Today, it is often called the last electric train that Japanese National Railways introduced. Though it is highly popular among railway enthusiasts in these days, it had been infamous for uncomfortable rolling as local TV station reported so just three months after the introduction.

There are a few reasons why the 381 series is so uncomfortable. One of them is that because its tilting feature is not computer-controlled but dependent on centrifugal force. The train tilts a few seconds after entering a curve and restores to the original position a few seconds after leaving the curve.

JR West converted a few intermediate carriages to so-called "Panorama Green Car", first class which passengers can enjoy views while on a train, but it was not clear whether it could distract them from motion sickness.

All remaining 381 series carriages were dramatically refurbished in 2007-11. JR West calls them "yuttari Yakumo", which means "relaxing Yakumo". However, even with new seats and clean toilets did not improve the bumpy ride and rolling. Hence, railway enthusiasts made parodies of the brand: "guttari Yakumo" (lit. "exhausting Yakumo") or even "guttari hakumo" (lit. "exhausting & vomiting").

The last regular service provided by the 381 series will be Yakumo 1 (Okayama 7:05 → Izumoshi 10:18) on Saturday 15 June 2024. However, the company notes that a few 381 series units might be used during holidays and when there is a lack of available train. It is expected that the old train remains for a while, possibly until early-2025.

Comparing timetables

It might be interesting to compare old timetables. Here are fastest Yakumo services in 2024, 1982, 1973 and 1968.

Alphabets for coach layouts mean as follows:
G for Green Car (first class) with seat reservation,
D for a dining car,
N for standard class WITHOUT seat reservation, and
R for standard class WITH seat reservation.