Based on “rail” events: Japan’s world-class railways (Part 1)
Mention trains in Japan and people would immediately imagine their sheer efficiency and connectivity of the railways. Through the years, the country has garnered admiration from people all over the world for its punctual train arrivals, comprehensive railway coverage, and their world-famous bullet trains (新幹線 shinkansen). Whether it’s to travel to other prefectures or simply to commute to work, trains have become essential in moving people in the country.
Japan's high-tech shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
In fact, you might be interested to know that the month of October is specially designated to celebrate the trains in Japan, and 14 October is officially recognised as Railway Day (鉄道の日Tetsudō no hi), where Japan annually commemorate their invaluable service in the country. For this article, as part of our celebration for this month, we will look at how the trains have shaped the lives of the people in Japanese society through the times, and explore how they have transformed over the years.
(Note: this is a two-part series exploring the world-class railways of Japan, and for part one, we will be focusing on the trains.)
How it came to be
Trains have been part of Japanese livelihood since the late 19th century. When the country opened to the world after a long period isolation (鎖国 sakoku), the government aimed for rapid modernisation of the country, which included developing its transport infrastructure. When train technologies were first introduced in Japan from European countries, the government decided to develop the first railway connecting Yokohama in Kanagawa, and Shinbashi in Tokyo with the help of foreign experts.
History of Japan's trains traced back to late 19th century. (Image credit: The Railway Museum)
Japan’s first railway opened and began operation in 1872, connecting Shinbashi Station (新橋駅 Shinbashi-eki), which was renamed Shiodome Freight Terminal later on; and the then Yokohama Station (横浜駅 Yokohama-eki), which is present-day Sakuragichō Station (桜木町駅 Sakuragichō-eki). The next phase in railway development shifted to the west in Kansai (関西), connecting major port cities Kōbe (神戸) with Ōsaka (大阪), and eventually Kyōto (京都) and Ōtsu (大津). Eventually, the railway network expanded to connect cities in eastern and western Japan, resulting in the birth of the Tōkaidō Main Line (東海道本線 Tōkaidō-honsen).
Tōkaidō Main Line. (Image credit: JR East)
After World War 2, the trains in Japan underwent a major overhaul in infrastructure development and organisational change. Due to the lack of coal and other natural resources, locomotive trains gave way to electric to diesel-fuelled trains, and eventually the Tōkaidō Main Line, along with other major railway lines in Japan, was electrified by 1956.
Japan’s first steam locomotive. (Image credit: The Railway Museum)
When Japan experienced rapid economic development in the 1960s, more people were using the trains which resulted in heavy congestion. The railway network rapidly expanded as well to accommodate the rising number of passengers, marking the country’s golden age in railways. Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the country’s first high-speed rail, also opened in 1964 to coincide with the Olympics Games held in Tokyo in the summer that same year. Soon, motorisation gradually overtook tram networks that had to make way for vehicles sharing the same roads, paving the way for subway networks in large cities.
JR East's major train lines in Tokyo's metropolitan area. (Image credit: JR East)
By the 1980s, the rapid development of railways, including the construction of subway networks and bullet train lines, resulted in massive debt. As resolution, Japan National Railways (JNR)—the entity in charge of the country’s national railway network since 1949—was privatised in 1987 and divided into several separate companies that form what we know today as the Japan Railways Group (JR Group).
Exhibits at The Railway Museum in Ōmiya. (Image credit: The Railway Museum)
History is constantly in the making for the railways in Japan, and people interested to learn more about them can pay a visit to The Railway Museum in Ōmiya, Saitama. Built and is operated by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation, this museum features how JR East's railways and trains of Japan came to be and where they will go from here, and exhibits here include more than 30 railway cars, and railway model dioramas. There are different sections explaining different aspects of the railways, including Science Station to demonstrate the scientific principles and mechanisms behind the trains in Japan, and Future Station that explains JR East's road map for trains and railways of the future.
(Note: Currently, various simulators and some hands-on exhibits are closed to the public as a safety precaution against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Please check the museum's website for the latest information.)
The Railway Museum (鉄道博物館)
Address: 3-47 Onari, Omiya, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture 330-0852
Nearest station: Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan Station (鉄道博物館駅)
Opening hours: 10am–5pm (closed every Tuesday and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: ¥1,330 per adult, ¥620 per student (elementary/middle/high school), ¥310 per child (3 years and above)
Rise of the trains
With the emergence of JR Group, Japan witnessed transformational changes to its railways. Privatisation resulted in competitive environment for train innovation and overall travelling experience. Through continuous improvement, rail travel in Japan garnered reputation worldwide for efficiency, punctuality, connectivity and technology.
Shinkansen evolution from 200 series (left) to E2 series (middle) and E5 series (right). (Image credit: photoAC/JR East)
Train evolution on Yamanote Line: the 103 series (top-left) in the 1980s, the 205 series (top-right) in the 2000s, the E231-500 series (bottom-left) in 2009, and the current E235 series (bottom-right). (Image credit: The Railway Museum/
As demand for rail travel increased, the railway companies began to introduce new trains were and provide new railway services. For instance, East Japan Railway Company (JR East), the company overseeing railway transportation in regions Tōhoku (東北) and Kantō (関東), along with Kōshin'etsu (甲信越) and Shizuoka (静岡), introduced trains such as the E259 for Narita Express in 2009, the E5 series for the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) in 2011, and the E6 series for Tōhoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen (秋田新幹線) in 2013.
Hokkaido Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
Railway development is showing no signs of slowing down in Japan, as the railroads in Japan continue to increase gradually over time. For instance, to improve connectivity to Honshū (本州) and the rest of the country, construction is currently underway to extend the Hokkaido Shinkansen from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station (新函館北斗駅 Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto-eki) to Sapporo Station (札幌駅 Sapporo-eki). Slated to be completed in 2030, this would allow commuters to take the shinkansen directly from Tokyo to Sapporo.
New E8 series to be used for Yamagata Shinkansen from 2024 onwards. (Image credit: JR East)
Railway companies in Japan also improve commuters' travelling experience by continually updating their rolling stock. The ageing E3-1000 series is still used for this train service, but they will be replaced by the brand new E8 series by 2024.
The E956 (ALFA-X) series. (Image credit: JR East)
And what's more, starting from 2027, we will witness the deployment of the state-of-the-art E956 ALFA-X (アルファエックス) shinkansen. Abbreviated from its full name (Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation), this 10-car train features a nose that is longer than the current E5 series, on each end of the train for better aerodynamism and it also features earthquake safety countermeasures. The train has been undergoing test runs since May 2019, and is scheduled to be deployed for the Tōhoku Shinkansen and Hokkaido Shinkansen.
Right on schedule
If there is one outstanding trait about trains in Japan, it’s punctuality. Rail travel in the country has earned a reputation worldwide for running like clockwork. This trait can be attributed to the Japanese society’s emphasis on punctuality and trains’ significant role in ensuring that commuters don’t end up late during their commute.
Punctuality is of utmost importance in rail travel in Japan. (Image credit: JR East)
In fact, train arrival tardiness is taken so seriously in Japan, that if a train is late by more than 5 minutes, the train conductor would make an announcement apologising to the passengers for the delay. In some cases, they would even prepare a “delay certificate” (遅延証明書 chien-shōmeisho) for affected passengers. This is also because many passengers transit from one line to another, and if one train is late, passengers would miss the train for the other line. There is often little buffer time in the transition between lines, so punctuality is critical in ensuring that passengers can reach their destinations on time.
To ensure that trains depart and arrive punctually at all times, precise timekeeping around the clock is crucial. Time imprecision and mismanagement have resulted in train accidents because of train collisions. For example, the Great Kipton Train Disaster occurred on 18 April 1891 because rail engineers didn’t check their pocket watches, which were out of sync by 4 minutes. It resulted in two trains colliding with each other, killing 9 people in total, and since then the use of accurate railroad pocket watches (鉄道懐中時計 tetsudō-kaichūtokei) became a necessity.
Railroad pocket watches. (Image credit: photoAC)
Railroad pocket watches were adopted by engineers, stationmasters and train conductors in Japan on 17 March 1893, and nowadays even crew members (including those under JR Group) have them. The dimension and accuracy for the watches are extremely strict, and are rented out to the crew members until they retire. In fact, they are even preferred to digital watches for their reliability, and they are used even for shinkansen arrival and departure times, where accuracy is paramount. On the E5 (Hayabusa) and E6 (Komachi) series’ dashboard, there is a slot specially for railroad pocket watches, and train conductors are to visually and auditorily check the time on the watch when departing and arriving at a station.
A railroad pocket watch (bottom right-hand corner) on the dashboard of N700S shinkansen while travelling at 360km/h. (Video credit: 鉄道新聞 - 鉄道ニュース)
To ensure that the trains run like clockwork within big cities such as Tokyo, especially during rush hours, the frequency is increased so that a new train arrives almost every minute. On the Yamanote Line (山手線), one of Tokyo and JR East’s busiest and most important lines, a new train arrives every 1–2 minutes during rush hour. This has basically become a requirement given the sheer number of commuters on the line daily.
As a prime example, Shinjuku Station (新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) is the busiest train station not just in Japan, but in the whole world. The station serves several lines such as Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, and a few major lines by JR East, including Yamanote Line, Chūō Line (中央線 Chūō-sen) and Saikyō Line (埼京線 Saikyō-sen). According to official statistics, lines by JR East serve the bulk of the commuters at the station, with an average of over 1.5 million people per day, and the station as a whole serves a total of more than 3.5 million people on average per day!
Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
This line also continues to be expanded: to coincide with the arrival of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a new station called Takanawa Gateway Station (高輪ゲートウェイ駅) was built and opened to the public on 14 March 2020.
The new Takanawa Gateway Station on the Yamanote Line. (Image credit: unific)
Need for speed
When we talk about punctuality, we are inevitably discussing time, and when it comes to reducing the amount of time to travel from one place to another, we are inevitably discussing speed. The reputation of Japan’s trains to be on the dot has a lot to do with the speeds achieved with the advanced technology at hand.
E6 series (Komachi) on the move. (Image credit: JR East)
When we think about high-speed rail travel in Japan, we immediately think about the shinkansen. It has garnered worldwide reputation for being among the fastest modes of transportation in the world, making it a viable option for long-distance travel in the country. When Tōkaidō Shinkansen—the first high-speed rail service in the Japan—began operation in 1964, the first bullet train, Hikari 1, departed from Tokyo to Shin-Ōsaka at speeds up to 210km/h.
JNR’s main objective for the new service was to enable passengers to travel between the two cities in 4 hours with Hikari (designated as Super Express), or 5 hours with Kodama (designated as Limited Express). Soon after, the operational speed was further increased to reduce travelling time, down to 3 hours for Hikari and 4 hours for Kodama, which we come to know now.
Shinkansen near Tokyo Station, circa 1967. (Image credit: Roger W)
After privatisation, the railway business became more competitive in offering better services for commuters. To further reduce travelling time, infrastructure was gradually improved and newer train models came to light. The N700 (Nozomi) series made its debut in 1992, replacing Hikari as the new express service on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen by clocking at a top speed of 270km/h to reduce travelling time to 2.5 hours. Later on, the speed was further upped to current-day 285km/h except for densely populated areas along the route, where safety speed limits must apply.
On other lines, the speed limit varies according to the section of the route. For Tōhoku Shinkansen, the top speed allowable between Tokyo and Ōmiya is 110km/h due to dense population in the areas, but between Utsunomiya (宇都宮) in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県) and Morioka (盛岡) in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県), the train speeds up to 320km/h, currently the fastest commercial train speed in Japan. This enables commuters to travel between the two cities, which are almost 400km apart, in just 2 hours (with few-minute stops along the way).
The E5 series (Hayabusa) on the Tōhoku Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)
To this day, speeds are still being challenged with the aim of further reducing travelling time. In a bid to reduce travelling time between Tokyo and Ōsaka, a cutting-edge maglev train is currently under development and testing. Dubbed the L0 series, the new train service is set to travel at 505km/h, and it has even achieved a land speed record of 603km/h in 2015. Once fully operational, commuters can travel between Tokyo and Ōsaka in just over 1 hour on the new Chūō Shinkansen (中央新幹線) that is currently under construction.
Heavy rails used for train tracks in Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)
When discussing incredible train speeds in Japan, the underrated bedrock that makes this feat a reality is the railways itself. A lot of engineering ingenuity behind the construction of the railway tracks that support increasing train speeds, and it can be narrowed down to two simple parts: the wheels and the rails.
- Wheels: the train wheels are manufactured with precision, and all must pass the U.S. wheel ultrasonic test, which is regarded as the world’s most stringent test for impurities and bubbles which can compromise wheel integrity; and currently, they are used in the U.S., Germany and many other countries.
- Rails: trains in Japan are capable of travelling at a velocity faster than 300km/h because of the use of heavy rails that has a density of 80kg per metre. The rails are specially manufactured and hardened as 80kg heavy rails, and they are currently used in Japan and in other countries, such as the Strait of Dover between England and France, and on the Amtrak transcontinental routes for heavyweight freight trains in the U.S.
As transport infrastructure improves in technology and efficiency over time, new challenges will arise. But regardless of any challenge that needs to be overcome, the end goal remains the same: to ensure the safety of the commuters. Safety is paramount, not just for rail travel but for any kind of travel, and when exploring how the trains of Japan has evolved over time, top priority for sheer safety should never be overlooked under any circumstance.
When travelling at such velocity, the main concern will inevitably be on the overall travelling experience. Ensuring that commuters have a smooth journey is imperative for railway companies in Japan but with trains travelling at over 300km/h, there are many problems to overcome. For one, travelling at high velocities result in vibrations that would make a commuter’s journey inside the train carriage a bumpy one. However, many past commuters on the shinkansen have commented how smooth their journeys were, so much that their drinks on the seat tables would barely vibrate while travelling on the trains. This is because of the engineering feats of the Japanese railways, such as welded rails on standard gauge tracks to reduce vibrations.
Safe and smooth journeys on the shinkansen in Japan. (Image credit: JR East)
Another issue for shinkansen is noise pollution, which remains to be a major concern especially for residents living close to the railway tracks. Increasing travelling speeds produces more noise, which is detrimental when the trains pass through many densely populated regions. To combat this problem, many measures have been taken such as erecting noise barriers and reducing the weight of train cars.
Train companies also continually research ways to address other related problems such as the piston effect and tunnel boom, which takes place when trains exit tunnels at very high speeds, which is a major concern in Japan since many train lines use tunnels to travel through mountainous terrains. Measures that have been undertaken include aerodynamic design for train (e.g. the E5 series’ iconic elongated nose is designed to counter the piston effect), adding hoods to tunnel entrances, and drilling vent holes in the tunnels.
Hayabusa’s aerodynamically designed elongated nose. (Image credit: JR East)
Another problem that train companies in Japan face is something the locals know all too well: earthquakes. Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, so train companies in the country must make it an imperative to ensure that their trains are safe against seismic activities. One outstanding case study was the earthquake that afflicted Tōhoku Region in 2011.
When the earthquake struck, a seismograph installed at Kinkasan (金華山) in Oshika Peninsula (牡鹿半島 Oshika-hantō) off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県) detected a primary wave (P-wave), sending a signal to the substation and triggering a power shutdown to the Tōhoku Shinkansen systems. All the bullet trains then, especially those running beyond 300km/h, were halted immediately, and by the time stronger secondary waves (S-waves) were detected only seconds later, the trains were running slower than 100km/h. 27 bullet trains in total were running at the time the earthquake struck, but the only one the derailed was an empty one travelling less than 14km/h, so no one was hurt.
In fact, according to one account, one train conductor on a bullet train felt something was off so he applied the brakes even before the earthquake detection system kicked off, signifying the sheer professionalism and incredible intuition of the train staff during times of crises.
Doctor Yellow at Tokyo Station. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
To ensure that safety is maintained at all times, regular maintenance is definitely a must. Railway companies in Japan prioritise this above everything else for the sake of their commuters' safety, but there's something unique about their maintenance methods: they employ a bullet train for it. Enter Doctor Yellow, a shinkansen used specially for railway inspection. Used by different companies under the JR Group, this train monitors the condition of the track and overhead wire while running at speeds of up to 270km/h, and their nickname is based on their iconic yellow design. For JR East, they use the E926 series dubbed "East i". Since Doctor Yellow is not open to public, catching it at work is extremely difficult. It is said that any time a rare sighting is made in the open, it would bring good luck!
The East i on the Tōhoku Shinkansen, by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
When discussing technology in railway safety, software is just as important as hardware. As a prime example, JR East uses a computerised control system developed by Hitachi named Autonomous Decentralized Transport Operation Control System (東京圏輸送管理システム, Tōkyō Ken Yusō Kanri Shisutemu), or ATOS (アトス) for short, to ensure that trains run efficiently in the Tokyo metropolitan area. On top of displaying travel information for its commuters such as train delay updates, it also regulates train traffic flow by informing train conductors to speed up or slow down, in order to prevent congestion.
ATOS at work on Yamanote Line. (Image credit: Andrew K. Smith)
Riding in comfort
People who have taken trains in Japan would vouch the sheer comfort of riding them. Indeed, trains in Japan are renowned not just for their speed and punctuality, but also for the careful attention paid on the commuters’ travelling experience. For long-haul train services, railway companies have incorporated many conveniences that have now been considered as basic necessities, such as spacious seats with reclining features, power outlets and ample luggage spaces.
Ample luggage space on the Narita Express train. (Image credit: JR East)
For shinkansen and selected limited express trains, you would notice that there are Ordinary Cars and Green Cars for different types of commuters, akin to the economy and business classes on planes. The Ordinary Car usually has a 3-2 seat configuration whereas the Green Car has a 2-2, forgoing the middle seat altogether. Plus, the seats in the Green Car have much more leg room and even a reading light.
Different car classes on the shinkansen: Ordinary Car (top-left), Green Car (top-right), and Gran Class (bottom). (Image credit: JR East)
Commuters would also discover another car with unparalleled luxury called the Gran Class, and it is available only on selected shinkansen such as the E5 series (Hayabusa). Commuters on the Gran Class will be personally ushered to their seats by a train attendant, who can also be summoned for assistance onboard with a push of a button. Plush leather seats await in this exclusive car, and they will receive complimentary amenities such as menu, blanket, warm towel, slippers (which may be taken home by the passenger), and eye mask. They can also enjoy complimentary meals such as specially made bento at no additional charge.
Of course, comfort isn’t the only important factor considered for commuters’ travelling experience. Ventilation is perhaps just as important, and railway companies in Japan spare no effort in ensuring that air circulation is constantly maintained on trains. In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, cleanliness is becoming even more imperative and companies such as JR East are going to great lengths to ensure that people can commute with utmost safety and a sense of relief.
Safety measures taken by JR East, including air ventilation in trains. (Image credit: JR East)
But the most important aspect of travelling experience? Cleanliness. Japan has a reputation worldwide for being spotless in many aspects, including the cleanliness on the trains. Commuters on the shinkansen would notice the sheer cleanliness of the train cairs for every journey. The secret behind this is the "7-minute miracle", a rigorous cleaning routine that is highly regarded, perhaps more so than Japan's railway technology itself. In fact, this routine is even used as an essential teaching material in the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program by the prestigious Harvard University. What's also unique is, the staff would also bow in respect upon the arrival of a shinkansen, which is a testament of their pride in their work.
The "7-Minute Miracle" cleaning routine. (Video credit: Tokyo Metropolitan Government)
Other special trains
Joyful Trains by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
The rise of travel also urged rail companies to rethink rail travel as a whole. For example, what was traditionally considered simply a mode of commute—to get from one place to another regularly, such as for work—rail travel could also be a form of leisure experience itself. For instance, take JR East’s Joyful Trains (のってたのしい列車 notte-tanoshii-ressha), which allow passengers to explore the joy of rail travel itself, where they can enjoy the unique theme of each train as it chugs through the idyllic countryside in eastern Japan.
Interiors of Toreiyu Tsubasa (left) and TOHOKU EMOTION (right). (Image credit: JR East)
While traversing through rural areas in prefectures in eastern Japan such as Iwate (岩手) and Nagano (長野), passengers on Joyful Trains can experience activities not commonly associated with rail travel. For example, passengers on the Toreiyu Tsubasa can experience footbaths (足湯 ashiyu) right inside the carriage itself, and on TOHOKU EMOTION, passengers can take part in exquisite fine dining while gazing at the sea off the Sanriku coast.
Train Suite Shiki-Shima by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
In some cases, the rail travel itself is rethought into a holistic and opulent experience in itself. For example, the Train Suite Shiki-Shima by JR East offers commuters the luxurious experience of a "cruise train" where dining, accommodation and lounge services are available onboard the train itself. As commuters relax and enjoy the services on the train, they can witness the outside view transform as the train traverses Tōhoku from Ueno Station in Tokyo to destinations such as Nikkō Station (日光駅 Nikkō-eki) in Tochigi Prefecture, Hirosaki Station (弘前駅 Hirosaki-eki) in Aomori Prefecture, and even up to Noboribetsu Station (登別駅 Noboribetsu-eki) in Hokkaido, depending on the packages available.
For more information on Train Suite Shiki-Shima, you can have a look at their official website here.
SAPHIR ODORIKO by JR East. (Image credit: JR East)
Another luxurious rail travel is the SAPHIR ODORIKO, a new deluxe train service by JR East. SAPHIR ODORIKO allows its commuters to travel from Tokyo to Shizuoka, providing an unforgettable experience as it makes its way to Izukyū-Shimoda (伊豆急下田駅 Izukyū-Shimoda-eki). It is equipped entirely with Green Car seats, but it also features JR East's first-ever Premium Green Car, and a cafeteria where commuters can enjoy food prepared in an open plan kitchen.
For more information on SAPHIR ODORIKO, you can have a look at their official website here.
As the demands of train commuters evolve over time, it becomes essential that railway companies rethink their services and upgrade their trains periodically. The trains of Japan have impressed people from all over the world, and it continues to improve in hopes of attracting even more people to visit the country and travelling with them. Plan your next “rail-ly” awesome train journey in Japan and explore the amazing trains for your next adventure!
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) or the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can travel on the Yamagata Shinkansen, Akita Shinkansen, Tōhoku Shinkansen, Hokuriku Shinkansen, Jōetsu Shinkansen and JR East lines within the valid areas, and make seat reservations for free!)
For the next part of this series, I will be exploring unique train stations of Japan, as part of our celebration for railways in Japan for the month of October. Stay tuned!
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.
(Note: the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)/(Nagano, Niigata area) is not valid for use on the Train Suite Shiki-Shima and SAPHIR ODORIKO.)
Header image credit: JR East