Japanese Railfreight


By Oliver Mayer and Anthony Robins

Container train leaded EF66 121 approaching Nagoya stationTanker train led by EF65 89 approaching Nagoya station

Left is a container train led by EF66 121. Right is a tanker train hauled by EF65 89.
Both trains are approaching Nagoya station on the Tokaido Main Line. By Anthony Robins in Oct. 1996.

1. Background:

Japan - the country of railways. It is well known that the railways have a very strong position in the passenger transportation market, but there have only been very few reports about railfreight in the Bullet-In. The reason for this is that the railways have a very low share of the freight transportation market in Japan, currently just approximately 4.5% (26.300 ton-kms or just 1% in pure tonnage). On the other hand, ships carry 44.5% and lorries 51% of all goods carried, measured in ton-kilometers. The share of the railways grows as the length of the journey grows as well. Over 1000 kilometers, the railway-share grows steeply and railways have no less than 47% of the market between Tokyo and Hokkaido.

Click here to see a rail map of Japan. Locations appeared in this article are indicated in green.

The freight transportation market in Japan is quite different to these markets in other countries of the world. Because nearly all large Japanese cities lie on the coast (Kyoto is one of the few exceptions) as well as most of the industry, coastal shipping has always played a very important role. In historic times, ships were the only mode to transport freight, because the roads were not good enough for horse-drawn vehicles. When railway development started, it became important soon, especially for serving areas away from canals and harbours and for urgent goods. However, ships, being slower but cheaper, remained important. After the war, road freight became stronger, and so the share of the railways dropped from about 50% to 30% in the 1960s. The share of the lorries rose by about the same speed, while coastal shipping has always carried between 40 and 50% of all freight.

When looking at the structure of railfreight, then there are three dominant products: petroleum products, non-ferrous metals and minerals, and cement. These three products together account for 70% of all railfreight transported and market share is as high as more than 80% in the case of oil transportation from the coast to inland areas. Paper, machinery, chemicals and coal have about 5% each, and many other goods together have the remaining 10%. As coal, petroleum products, cement and metal are also the main goods transported by ships, it is clear that the railway faces stiff competition from there. For example, the railways are transporting only 10% of all coal in Japan, while in Europe coal is mainly transported by rail. This is largely due to the decline in domestic coal production and its replacement with imports. Lines such as Hokkaido's Muroran Line have therefore seen a marked loss of traffic.

The railfreight market is basically divided into three parts: First, there is JR Freight, the former freight division of JNR. JR itself owns very few railway lines. It mainly uses the tracks of the six passenger railways. Presently, use is on favorable terms, but this situation may change. Second, there are 13 coastal railways, all of them built in the 1960s and 1970s to develop harbours and industrial areas. Third, there are 16 private railways (most of them with passengers as their main traffic) with some freight workings.

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