Japanese Experience

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A recent visit to Japan for the launch of Hitachi Rail’s new IEP train gave Rail Media’s Nigel Wordsworth the chance to experience rail travel around the country and see the differences that culture makes to the running of a railway system.

Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, the international press team took the opportunity to board one of the monorails that have run from the airport to the city since 1964, although the current rolling stock only dates back to 2006.

Ticketing was simple as a ‘Suica’ card was purchased at a machine. This operates much like London’s Oyster – a deposit is paid for the card which is then topped-up in fixed increments. The card was first introduced by JR East in 2001 and can now be used interchangeably with cards from several other railway companies as well as buses and trams in the Tokyo area. In addition, many small shops and kiosks, particularly within stations, accept Suica cards for payment as a form of electronic money.

A unified yet divided network

At this stage it may be opportune to explain how Japan’s railways are organised. The former Japanese National Railways, a government-owned corporation, was broken up in 1987 after problems caused by management inefficiencies, declining usage and accusations of fraud.

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The Japanese Railways Group, known as the JR Group, was formed although it is more of a loose association as all of the companies are independent.

The six passenger train companies are divided geographically. Railways on the main island of Honshu are split between JR East, JR Central and JR West. All three own trains, run services and also own and maintain their own infrastructure and are publicly-quoted companies.

The three next-largest islands have their own networks, run by JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu respectively. JR Freight runs a national freight service and all of these four companies are still owned by the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency.

The bulk of the network is to 3’ 6” gauge (1.067m). The Shinkansen (new trunk line) high-speed lines are standard 4’ 8.1/2” gauge (1.435m) and are dedicated to high-speed services. This means that as well as being fast, services are very reliable and with punctuality timed in seconds rather than minutes. JR Central set a record in 1997 with an average lateness of 18 seconds.

Some Shinkansen and other services run across company dividing lines. The train goes through, but the crew changes at the ‘border’.

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Inside Tokyo

The monorail ride was no different from any other metro service, although there were excellent views of Tokyo bay. The express (fast) service to Tokyo takes only 13 Minutes. Arriving at Hamamatsuchō station, it was time to do battle with Tokyo’s subway map. Those of us used to the ordered geometry of London’s underground maps found the Tokyo version confusing, even more so as some versions are in Japanese script only and others don’t show all of the operating companies. However, it was soon decided that the Oedo line to Shinjuku was the best choice.

Moving around the system is easy, and another difference between Japanese and UK practice was soon noticed. Japanese gate lines are open by default and only close when an invalid ticket (or even no ticket at all) is submitted. Thus, crowds move through gates much more quickly. There always seemed to be an attendant on hand for those with problems or even foreigners who were just confused!

The following day we used the Maroumouchi line to get to Tokyo Central station to catch a JR East Shinkansen to Sendai, two hours north- east along the coast.

Our trip was in a bright-green class E5 train. In fact, the lower half of the body sides are white, with a pink stripe separating that colour from the predominant green. The trains themselves are built both by Hitachi and by Kawasaki.

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One of JR East’s new Class E7 trains at the Sendai depot.
Sendai is the home of JR East’s General Shinkansen Depot. 1,200 people work here, carrying out major rebuilds of the company’s train fleet.

By regulation, every Shinkansen train must be rebuilt every 36 months. Bogies come off and are rebuilt, with the wheel profiles being turned. Once complete, each individual bogie is run on a dynamometer at 200mph – it is well tied down while on test to prevent it shooting out into the main factory.

All of the seats come out, and the wiring, and the resultant empty carriages are then repainted. Seats are repaired as necessary and replaced, as are the wiring looms, the pneumatic systems and the lighting. Just 18 days later a gleaming, 10-car Shinkansen train is ready to go back into service.

The Sendai depot looks after all of the models of the JR East Shinkansen fleet. The E5 we already know, but there was even an E7 in the shop. Signed off by the manufacturer only the day before, it is the latest addition and has only been in service since March 2014.

Two into one does go

Returning to Tokyo, we stop off at Fukushima. Here the Yamagata Shinkansen line from Shinjo joins the main Tohoku Shinkansen from Shin- Amori which we have been travelling on. To increase capacity into and out of Tokyo, 10-car E2 sets are coupled up with seven-car E3 trains from Shinjo to run into the capital as one 17-car train. The speed with which this happens is impressive. The front train is only in the platform for a minute or two before the rear portion arrives. There is then only a few moments delay before the coupled- up combination is off on its way.

JR East E5.
JR East E5.

Back on the next E5, the party is soon back at Tokyo. Here we have the chance to look around the station, and especially the retail area. This is extensive with a lot of food outlets as well as luxury stores. JR East’s Kenichiro Takahara, who looks after the retail sector, explains that 32 per cent of the company’s total income is now from non-railway activity and the target is to get this up to 50 per cent.

Down south

The following morning, the group is back at the central station, this time catching a JR Central train to Tokuyama, just west of Hiroshima and 1,000 km from Tokyo. A 16-car N700 train will take us first to Osaka and then, under a JR West crew, on to Tokuyama.

As the train pulls into the terminus platform at Tokyo Central, a line of people in pink (for the women) and blue (for the men) uniforms line up, one or two at each door position. As soon  as the last passenger has disembarked, these cleaners, for that’s who they are, dive onto the train and start frantically cleaning everything in sight. Rubbish bins are emptied, antimacassars are changed and dusting and polishing takes place. The crew has seven minutes to complete its task.

While this is going on, passengers who are waiting to board stand patiently on the platform. No-one tries to get on while the cleaning crew is on the train.

Once finished, the cleaners disembark and stand to attention by the doors, which then close. The cleaners leave and, at the appointed time, the doors open again. Everyone boards and, within two minutes, we are off. It’s impressive.

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Standard-class seating has plenty of legroom but, arranged in a 3 + 2 format, hip space is a bit limited for the western ‘bum’.

One novelty though is that, by releasing a catch, a complete three- seat unit can be spun around to face the one behind and then locked back into place. So the choice of face-to- face or airline seating is down to the passengers.

Impressive new train

At Tokuyama, after an overnight stay in a clean but simple hotel, and a Japanese attempt at a western cooked breakfast, it’s off by bus to Hitachi’s Kasado Works. The press is lined up in front of a red and white stage, a large pair of white curtains is drawn and the new IEP train, number 800001, moves forward under its own (diesel) power. Three bi-mode (combined diesel and overhead electric) trains will arrive in the UK in 2015 for testing, two five-car units and one nine-car.

Almost devoid of seats to make room for all of the testing equipment that will be installed later, the new train is impressive. Sliding doors may be a bit unusual on the main line, but the Shinkansen all have them and they work well and reliably.

The new Class 800 IEP train at its launch.
The new Class 800 IEP train at its launch.

Painted in fairly neutral colours, these trains will remain Hitachi’s property until testing is complete. Thirteen trains in total will be built in Japan before assembly moves to Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. With a high UK and European content, all of those components will be shipped to Japan to be built into the early trains and then shipped back.

Having looked at the factory and how the trains are being built, interspersed with Shinkansen units and narrow gauge metro stock, it was back to the station for the return to Tokyo. This time we were in Green Class – the equivalent of first – and, with wider seats in a 2+2 arrangement, it’s much more comfortable. JR East even has a Gran Class with leather seats arranged 2+1 and a luxurious ambience. It’s a great way to travel.

Two other things are noticeable. Looking out of the window, there is no graffiti anywhere. And the on- board announcements, which are in English as well as Japanese, reminds passengers that anyone wishing to make or receive a mobile phone call should go out into the between- carriages lobbies so as not to disturb other passengers.

It’s a different world!


  1. All very interesting, but the focus on the Shinkansen belies the reality of the Japanese network – the Shinkansen is only a tiny fraction of Japan’s rail transport – and one we in the UK can’t learn that much from. What of the massive commuter operations in the major cities – and how those as networks operate on an infrastructure which is remarkably similar to our own? They have some interesting engineering, technical and operational solutions for various problems which may feel familiar. And why the sole focus on the JR Group companies – a third of Japan’s pax-km is by private railway companies (these are truely private and are either historically separate entities or former JNR lines sold off completely). The “Third Sector” locally-owned rail companies are quite interesting as a model for decentralising regional services.

    And it’s worth noting that one of the biggest reasons for privatising Japanese National Railways was the huge debt created out of both an operating deficit and massive capital programs…

  2. Hi Matt

    Thanks for your comments, but you have missed the point of the article. It was not an exhaustive look at Japanese railways, but a report on my recent visit to look at Hitachi’s new IEP.

    I concentrated on the JR companies because we were taken to look at the JR East depot and the new Hitachi-built E7 train in sendai, and then we travelled on JR central and JR West to get to the main factory at Kasado to look at IEP.

    In the factory we also saw some more-traditional trains being built for the non-JR railways, but confidentiality prevented me from photographing them or writing about them. And I did one journey on a metro train, but it was one of JR East’s.

    So – I am sure there are many other fascinating articles to come out of Japan, but they will have to wait for another visit.


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