JR News: Iwate’s iconic steam locomotive train “SL Ginga” to retire in spring 2023
East Japan Railway Company (JR East) has announced that the SL Ginga (SL銀河), the iconic steam locomotive train that runs on Iwate Prefecture’s Kamaishi Line, will retire in spring 2023, due to the deterioration of its passenger cars (KiHa 141 series).
The SL Ginga uses the restored C58 239 steam locomotive (SL), which was originally built in 1940. Until 1972, the C58 239 operated mainly on the Yamada, Kamaishi, and Ofunato Lines, after which it was kept on display in a prefectural park, where it remained well-preserved for decades.
In April 2014, in order to revitalise and bring back tourism to the disaster-stricken regions in Iwate after the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the SL Ginga was restored and reborn as a sightseeing train.
The SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East and JR East / Carissa Loh)
The name “Ginga” means “galaxy”, and the SL Ginga brings to life author Miyazawa Kenji’s (宮澤賢治) beloved classic “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜 Ginga Tetsudо̄ no Yoru). A native of Iwate Prefecture, Miyazawa Kenji hailed from the region of Hanamaki, and the SL Ginga currently plies the route between JR Hanamaki Station and JR Kamaishi Station on the Kamaishi Line.
Onboard, the train features retro booth seats covered in red velvet, stained-glass style windows, galleries dedicated to Miyazawa Kenji, and even an optical planetarium.
The steam locomotive undergoing its recent overhaul. (Image credit: JR East 盛岡車両センター / Ika)
As the SL Ginga’s steam locomotive is over 80 years old, it regularly requires maintenance to ensure that the parts are in working order. In addition to regular maintenance, complete overhauls—which include detailed inspections and repair of individual parts—are conducted when necessary.
Between summer 2020 and August 2021, the SL Ginga underwent its first complete overhaul since its debut, which took almost a year to complete. The train finally made its comeback in late August 2021, much to the delight of its supporters.
Exterior of the SL Ginga’s passenger cars (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
However, while the steam locomotive has been maintained, the passenger cars (KiHa 141 series) have been deteriorating. The passenger cars used for the SL Ginga were remodelled 50-series passenger cars from JR Hokkaido, which were transferred to JR East and remodelled again. These passenger cars have an engine, which can operate in tandem with the steam locomotive so that SL Ginga can run on the steep Kamaishi Line.
SL Ginga running on the Miyamorigawa Bridge. (Image credit: JR East)
In 2021, the SL Ginga will operate until 5 December. In 2022, it will mainly operate on weekends between spring and early winter, running from Hanamaki to Kamaishi on Saturdays, and Kamaishi to Hanamaki on Sundays. Finally, it will make its final run sometime in spring 2023.
Further details such as the exact date of the Last Run and farewell events will be announced once the details are confirmed.
Warm welcomes during the SL Ginga’s recent comeback event. (Image credit: JR East Morioka Branch and JR East Morioka Branch / Takahashi)
To date, the SL Ginga has welcomed 57,000 passengers. Even after the end of the SL Ginga’s operation, JR East will continue to consider the operation of new sightseeing trains, and work on tourism promotion together with the local people of Iwate Prefecture.
Header image credit: JR East / Shinoda