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.