Oigawa Railway

Japan's most popular railfan destination with steam operations and an Abt rack rail system

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Along the Oigawa Main Line

The great Oigawa River with steam engine C56 The Ikawa Line' mini train
A steam train on the Oigawa main line
with the Great Oi River in the background.
A mini train on the Ikawa line
in a dense forest.
By Hiroshi Naito

Oigawa Railway is a small regional railway in Shizuoka prefecture about 250km southwest of Tokyo. It starts from Kanaya, a small town on the JR Tokaido main line, and runs entirely along the great Oi river (Oi-gawa; gawa is river in Japanese) through the Kawane district up to Ikawa, a village situated in a sheer mountain area. There are no big cities nor heavy industries along the line. It only serves small towns and villages sparsely located on the narrow flat lands that lie along the river. However, the railway is special to railfans with regularly operated steam trains and a mountain railway segment that partly includes an Abt system (rack-rail system). This is why I am introducing this regional railway here.

a map of central Japan The Oi river, well known as one of the greatest rivers in Japan, flows about 180km down to the sea from a mountain range in Japanese Southern Alps, where several 3000m-range mountains peak in a string. However, it is not necessarily very long and its entire basin area is rather small in contrast to its fame. The distinctive nature of the river is its isolation and wildness. Being surrounded with precipitous mountains, the river and its valley areas are almost isolated. To access the river from the east or west, there was no means other than crossing over sheer mountains by overcoming rugged passes. Also the river used to be pretty wild with rapid streams running down along the steep river bed over rather short distances gathering water from the deep rainy mountains. Before the modern era, this isolation and wildness was taken advantage of by the Shognate to protect Edo (the old name of Tokyo). No bridge was intentionally built over the river those days from a strategic point of view. It could be a natural fortress along with the Hakone Mountain range, which runs down from the Mt. Fuji area trough Izu Peninsula to the sea. Travelers had to put up with hardships such as wading the river and were often prevented from going through when the water level rose with raging mudstreams, especially during rainy seasons. A famous song sang among the horse men on the old Tokaido road was "32km long Hakone mountain path could be overcome by a horse ride, but no way to cross the wild Oi."

The Oigawa railway line looks like one line on a map. However, it is actually split into two different lines at Senzu terminal, a lower segment and an upper segment. The lower segment is the Oigawa main line, between Kanaya and Senzu, while the upper segment is the Ikawa line, between Senzu and Ikawa, with both having equal 39.5km trackage. Both are all single track with 1,067mm (3'6'') narrow gauge. The Oigawa main line is 1500VDC electrified, while the Ikawa line is non-electrified except on the rack rail section which is powered with 1500VDC. Although both lines use the same gauge, rolling stock on the Oigawa line cannot enter the upper segment because of the smaller-sized allowable clearance of the Ikawa line.

History of the Oigawa railway:
The Oigawa Railway Company originated in 1925. The role of the railway was to transport logs and to develop hydroelectric power plants along the river. It was around the era just after World War I and the Great Kanto Quake when the economy boomed, bringing about a sharp growth of the prefecture's logging industry, and electricity companies were targeting the river's secluded area for hydroelectric power sources because of the ample rainfall in the Oi river area.

The Oigawa line's first segment opened in 1923, followed by the inauguration of full service over the entire trackage in 1926. Due to the commencement of rail service, the life of the people in the deep Oi area drastically changed. Before that, horse riding across sheer passes, rafts and ships, were the only transport means for the people.

The rail service started with steam hauled mixed trains. Later, diesel rail cars were introduced. In 1949 after World War II, the line was entirely electrified on 1500VDC. In 1951, passenger trains were replaced with EMUs.

The upper segment of the Ikawa line is the successor of an old logging railway, which also was dedicated to freight transportation for dam construction. More detailed information of the Ikawa line history will be described in the next page.

Both line's freight transportation roles finished when the construction of the Ikawa Dam, the greatest dam in the Oi river water system, had been completed, and the logging industry shifted its transportation mode to trucks. Now, the railway serves as a sightseeing railway for tourists who visit scenic canyons, hot spring spas and artificial lakes in the deep Oigaw region. Also the Oigawa railway is one of the most common railfan destinations with steam operations and the mini trains on the Ikawa line along with the attractive scenery on all the way to Ikawa.

Steam Operation:
The Oigawa Railway revived steam trains in 1976, the year after all steam locomotives were displaced on the national railway lines. Since then, it has been operating steam trains on the Oigawa main line between Kanaya and Senzu with a fleet of four steam engines, all of which were restored by the Oigwa Railway. Another attraction of the railway's steam operations is its old coaches. Their dark maroon livery is as when they used to be in old steam days when they were dominant all over Japan.

The railway's current steam train operations are one daily round trip (except January 1st) and one or two additional round trips during weekends and busy tourist seasons. The daily train starts Kanaya at 11:50 and arrives in Senzu at 13:07. The return trip leaves Senzu at 14:50 and arriving in Kanaya at 16:09.

Steam Locomotive Roster

In working order
(2-6-4 tank), 66.1 tons, built in 1942

(2-6-4 tank), 66.1 tons, built in 1948

(2-6-2 tank), 50.1 tons, built in 1937

(4-6-0), 37,6 tons, built in 1935

In static exhibition
(2-6-4 tank) 69.7 tons, built in 1930

(2-8-0) 95 tons, built in 1920

Two small locomotives are in static exhibition in a railway archive in front of Shin-Kanaya station. They are 1275, built in Germany in 1922, and SL Izumo, built in Germany in 1921.

Electric locomotive Type E10 at Shin-Kanaya C11312 pulling into Shin-Kanaya
Inside the station on the sidings are old coaches, and some old-looking electric locomotives in use for switching work. The steam train pulled in with the leading engine of C11312
Train Ride on Oigawa Main Line:
On a fine day in early May, I drove to Shin-Kanaya station, the next station from Kanaya, where the railway's headquarters and depot are located. Although I felt a little bit guilty as a railfan through going to the railway by car, but I had a special intention of photographing the station, the most strategic point of the Oigawa main line. Inside the station on the sidings are old coaches, and some old-looking electric locomotives in use for switching work. In the depot were two steam engines under preparation for today's operations and some parked EMUs. With these features and an island platform with its wooden roof supported by wooden columns, the station looked reminiscent of the best old days of Japanese railways.

The steam train pulled in with the leading engine of C11312, a 2-6-4 tank. The formation was four old coaches. Thank goodness, no head mark was decorated on the front of the engine, and no special car was added. The coaches were Type Oha 35s sandwiched between Type Ohafu 33s, both of which are pre-war types. The tapered ends of these cars with end vestibules are a typical feature of coaches from those days. The train really appeared to be an authentic old steam-hauled passenger train.

Coach Oha35 Inside the Oha35
The tapered ends of these cars with end vestibules are a typical feature of coaches from those days. Inside, the coach retained its old wooden interior with cross seats and the wooden floor.
Inside, the coach retained its old wooden interior with cross seats and the wooden floor. I got a window side seat on the right facing the engine end. Loading a considerable number of passengers, the train started rolling with a poignant steam blown whistle. I pulled up the window so that I could easily observe the progress of my train. Pillaring smoke, sounds of steam and working steel, old coaches trailing the steam engine ... with all the effects I was back into yesteryear - backward in time to the steam operated era

. The train proceeded through the town of Kanaya for a while, but soon entered a rural area. A rice field was stretching along the track, as far as the foothill of the mountain which actually looked close. Reaching the foothill, outside the view transformed in a moment into that of a rugged mountain area. Then, the train began taking a narrow path cut into the bank that steeply falls down to the river. As the train rolled along the path ascending the grade, the great Oi river came in view through woods below the track.

The wide river bed seen was almost all sand and rocks, with some narrow streams flowing separately. The Oi river used to be so wild enough with ample water flow and sometimes flooded the fields stretching down to the Shimada area, which is across the river from Kanaya. From around 1900, the river improvement work started and later a number of dams were consecutively built at the middle and upstream reaches, so it became calm. Now, the water flow on the river is under human control, so people have all forgotten the fear of flooding that had afflicted them for a long time.

From the window hitting a tunnel
The train sometimes entered tunnels when it hit the flanks of the mountain that reached down to the river.
The train sometimes entered tunnels when it hit the flanks of the mountain that reached down to the river. The passengers were busy pulling up and down the windows to prevent smoke from coming in as the train entered and emerged from tunnels. As the mountain slope went away a little, the train rolled into the Ieyama area, the center of the Kawane district, finishing its course along this section of the river. On the left-hand side were green tea fields on a gentle slope ascending as far as the mountain. The scenery was nice, full of the lush green of new buds. It was the harvest time of green tea, so farmers picking tea leaves were seen here and there in the fields. Kawane is well known for its production of green tea. Around this time of the year, Japanese people, especially in this prefecture, enjoy fresh green tea using newly picked tea. Actually, green tea is served free of charge at stations and shops in tourist spots in the vicinity. At Ieyama we crossed another train. It was a 2-car EMU, which was purchased second-hand from the Seibu Railway in Tokyo.

Former Kintetsu M421 run along the coastal path
The river bed of the great Oi could be seen just downward of the windows.
Leaving Ieyama, the train crossed a bridge over the Oi river and began rolling along the track on the eastern bank. From around here, the river suddenly started twisting, making some sharp S curves. Nevertheless, my train went straight on passing through some tunnels, but sometimes gasping as it encountered 2% gradients. Soon, again the river bed of the great Oi could be seen just downward of the windows. The scenery on the left was quite spectacular. Beyond the river was the start of a densely forested mountain range that looked as if it overlapped endlessly. On the right was a prefecture road closely paralleling the track. Beyond the road was a mountain slope that rose sharply with many tall trees on it. The train passed by a low dam which takes water that is supplied to the industries, farmlands and houses in the areas around the downstream reach of the Oi river. This dam is the most downstream facility along the river. A suspension bridge was in view casting a beautiful shape on the artificial lake upstream of the dam. A hydroelectric power station with some long water pipes was seen far away beyond the river.

From the window at Shimoizumi station
Another train met at Shimoizumi was a 2-car streamlined Zoom Car, MO 21001 class, purchased from Nankai Electric Railway in Osaka.
The parallel prefectural road was gone, crossing the river to converge with a national road on the western bank. The track kept on running along the river bank except when entering some villages where loops were provided. Another train met at Shimoizumi was a 2-car streamlined Zoom Car, MO 21001 class, purchased from Nankai Electric Railway in Osaka. It was interesting that its light green livery was intact as it used to be. EMUs in use at Oigawa Railway are all second-hand stock and they are kept in their old liveries, which results in the rail system being more attractive for railfans. A further good point is that all train sets are fitted with cross seats through modification received after purchased. Also, except for two modern items of stock, former Nankai 21001 class and Keihan 3000 class, they are vintage enough to feature old nose-suspended motor systems. Their special motor sounds, once familiar to usual EMUs are the effects that disappeared long time ago from urbanized areas. On the other hand, they are not air-conditioned , so daily patrons have to suffer from uncomfortable rides during summer.

After passing Suruga-Tokuyama loop, the river began forming sharp S curves again. The railway ran straight crossing bridges and through tunnels. As soon as it emerged from the last tunnel on the line, the train crossed the final bridge and regained the western bank. The river now became considerably narrower, situated upstream of the sharp S curves. The train arrived in Senzu terminal on time. It was a one hour and seventeen minutes ride.

Senzu station is a 4-track terminus with two island platforms along with a number of sidings. On some sidings were some items of preserved railway heritage. Static exhibits include steam engines, a down quadrant 2-aspect semaphore, a Britain-made turntable, etc. In the steam locomotive archive located adjacent to the station are various collections and items that explicitly tell the history of this railway. The manual block signaling machines which used to be in use a long time ago on the line were fantastic.

Oigawa Railway Main Line Photos

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