Calss 885 Kamome limited express

The Hakata to Nagasaki Kamome limited express services use the brand new class 885, looking quite similar to the latest version of the German ICE. At Tashiro on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000

Railways in Northern Kyushu

By Oliver Mayer

Northern Kyushu is an area with interesting trains, and has been featured in the Bullet-in before (no. 13: Kyushu overview by Anthony Robins; no. 33: Feel the Breeze through the Open Window by Minoru Shinozaki; no. 35: DD 51 Commuting in Kyushu by John Cowburn; no. 37: Kyushu Coalfield Circular by Colin Brown). Northern Kyushu has also been included in most JRS railtours, and it is easy accessible by Shinkansen. What makes the area so interesting is the diversity of trains and companies. There is of course JR Kyushu with diesel and electric trains, JR West with the Shinkansen, Nishitetsu as a large private railway, two third sector railways (Heisei Chikuho and Amagi), the subway in Fukuoka, the monorail in KitaKyushu and an interurban, the Chikuho Dentetsu. I have not yet travelled on all lines, but those mentioned in the text are marked with a number, corresponding to the number on the map.

Click here to see the rail network map of northern Kyushu

Fukuoka, capital of Fukuoka prefecture and largest city on Kyushu with 1.3 million inhabitants, is a good place to use as a base for travel in that area. Day trips to Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Oita are not a problemaa. There are plenty of cheap business hotels around Hakata station. I have stayed there several times since I first visited Kyushu in 1990.

Fukuoka's largest station is Hakata, terminus of the Sanyo Shinkansen. The Shinkansen is operated by JR West, and you can see all classes (from 0 to 700) at Hakata. A very interesting route is the Hakata-Minami-sen, which is actually the access route to the Shinkansen depot, 8.5 km south of Hakata. This route is operated by JR Kyushu and 4- or 6-car trains can be used on that service. It is a very cheap Shinkansen ride, for only 220 Yen plus a limited-express supplement of 100 Yen. Besides the Shinkansen, most limited expresses on Kyushu start and end at Hakata, also many local and regional JR trains. There is always much to see. The station is very modern and has large underground shopping arcades.

The Kuko (Airport)-line of the municipal subway [15] crosses under the station. The Fukuoka Airport is just two subway stops from Hakata station. This brings JR West and the Sanyo Shinkansen in a very difficult position, as the disadvantage of most airports (long access from the city centre) is not true for Fukuoka. So JR West is always trying to make the Shinkansen faster, and has achieved good success with the series 500 and the new Rail Star 700. The Fukuoka subway has two lines (a third is under construction), the Kuko sen and the Hakozaki-sen. The Kuko sen is much heavier used, as it connects the airport and Hakata station with the city centre (Nakasu-Kawabata and Tenjin). The Hakozaki-sen branches off the Kuko sen at Nakasu-Kawabata (although some trains go through to Nishijin) and goes to Kaizuka, where one can change to Nishitetsu's Miyajidake-sen [14]. There is no physical connection between the two lines at Kaizuka. The Kuko sen is connected to the JR Chikuhi-sen [8] on its western end, and every second or third train goes through to Karatsu, using either subway or refurbished JR class 103 or new class 303 EMU stock - actually the only JR line on Kyushu with 1,500 V DC electrification (the rest is 20,000 V AC 60 Hz). The stations of the Fukuoka subway have a very distinctive design, with every station having a symbol making orientation easy. It must be mentinoned that the Kuko sen connects Hakata with the city centre, but there are plenty of buses on this route as well. Recently Nishitetsu, largest bus operator (see below), has introduced a 100 Yen bus fare between Hakata and Tenjin (200 Yen for the subway), and this is quite popular. Although buses take longer than the subway, they are not as crowded and have a wide variety of stops in between, allowing a closer access to shops and offices.

Around Fukuoka, JR operates EMUs on the Kagoshima-hon-sen [1], the main railway line in Kyushu. The rolling stock for the local and rapid trains between Moji/KitaKyushu and Omuta is mostly modern, using classes 811 and 813 EMUs. Both look quite similar in the corporate colours of JR Kyushu which is a silver body with some red and black colour. Both trains can run up to 120 km/h, and the riding comfort is very high. When they were introduced in 1995/96, they replaced most older classes 421 and 423. However, class 415 EMUs remain in service in peak times. Besides the local traffic, limited expresses are running steadily in and out of Hakata, being formed by some refurbished 485, otherwise by classes 783, 787, 883 and 885. The 783 was the first express-EMU after the JNR era, called "Hyper Saloon". It has no clear route today, but can be found on Midori, Huis Ten Bosch, Kamome and Sonic services. Midori (Hakata - Sasebo) and Huis Ten Bosch (Hakata - Huis Ten Bosch) run along the Nagasaki Main Line [7] coupled until Haiki, and if the Kamome (Hakata - Nagasaki) runs with class 783, then it may also be coupled to the other two services, but only as far as Hizen-Yamaguchi. But since 2000, more and more Kamome-trains use the brand new class 885, looking quite similar to the latest version of the German ICE.

The most heavily used route with limited expresses is from Hakata to Kumamoto [1], with three trains per hour. The basic pattern is one Tsubame with limited stops, through to Nishi-Kagoshima, and two Ariake with more stops, going to Kumamoto and Suizenji respectively. All trains are operated by class 787 (silver colour) EMUs with a very elegant interior design. A good place for spotting all these EMUs is the line [1] between Hakata and Tosu, where the Nagasaki Main Line [7] branches off towards Sasebo and Nagasaki.

Finally, the most attractive train of Kyushu is the class 883 EMU, running on the Sonic services from Hakata via Kokura (KitaKyushu to Oita over the Nippo Main Line [4]. But take care, as some services now use the class 885 as 'White Sonic'. Other services on this route (to Miyazaki) use the Hyper Saloon (class 783). The big JR timetable always mentiones which class is used, so you can check there before making a reservation.

As a local service around Fukuoka, the Kashii-sen [9] must be mentioned. Although it does not go to the main station of Hakata, it is well served by DMUs with a 20-min-service most of the day. Its centre is Kashii station on the Kagoshima Main Line [1]. The western section of the Kashii-sen out to Saitozaki is a nice route along a narrow peninsula, and in summer I think it will be very popular to go to the seaside.

Class 787 Ariake limited express

Class 787 Hakata to Kumamoto/Ssizenji Ariake limited express, at Omuta on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

Class 783

Class 783 "Hyper Saloon" on a combined Kamome/Midori service from Hakata to Nagasaki/Sasebo, at Tashiro on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

Class 783 Hyper Saloon on its way from Hakata to Nagasaki

Class 783 "Hyper Saloon" on its way from Hakata to Nagasaki, at Harada on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 1994.

Class 303 Fukuoka subway through train

Class 303 Fukuoka subway through train, at Shimoyamato on the Chikuhi Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

Minami-Fukuoka depot

Minami-Fukuoka depot. Resting are refurbished class 485s.
By Oliver Mayer, October 1994.

Moji-based AC locomotive EF81

Moji-based AC locomotive EF81, at Takeshita on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 1994.

One of the large 15 private railways of Japan, Nishitetsu operates several routes in northern Kyushu. Nishitetsu is also the largest bus operator in the area. The most important railway line is Nishitetsu's main line, the Omuta-sen [10], from Fukuoka to Omuta. The line starts in Tenjin, the true city centre of Fukuoka. That means that Nishitetsu is in a good position compared to JR, as Tenjin is full of shops, department stores (with the Nishitetsu terminus on the second floor of one) and nightlife. Competition to JR is quite severe, as both railways run parallel southwards, both serving Futsukaichi, Kurume and Omuta. Only Yanagawa has only Nishitetsu trains. Therefore, JR and Nishitetsu are both trying to attract as many passengers as possible.

The Nishitetsu Omuta-sen is double-track nearly throughout, only south of Kurume there are three short single-track sections. Although passenger numbers on this route has fallen due to the economic depression of Omuta (the large Miike Coal Mine closed in 1997), work is underway to double some sections. The line is elevated for several kilometres out of Fukuoka, around Kurume station and at Yakabe (north of Yanagawa). Between Fukuoka and Futsukaichi, train speeds are slow, around 70 to 80 km/h, while further south the average is 95 km/h, and 100 km/h only on very few sections. (On the other hand, track quality of the parallel JR line is much better, with rapid trains of class 811 running as fast as 115 km/h.)

Nishitetsu operates limited expresses (tokkyu every 30 minutes, normally with designated classes 2000 and 8000 (cross seats). However, especially during the morning and evening peaks, normal rolling stock with long seats can be found on the expresses. Nishitetsu's fleet consists of 2-, 3- and 4-car-units, which are then coupled together to form longer trains (maximum is 7 cars), but on the branch lines and the southern part of the Omuta-sen trains are quite short and often one-man operated. Also interesting to note is that in the Nishitetsu trains the announcements are recorded male voices!

Two lines branching off the main line must be mentioned. First, the Dazaifu-sen [19], only 2.4 km long from Futsukaichi. The second is the Amagi-sen [11], going from Miyanojin to Amagi. Both lines have only local trains. A bit unusual is the Miyajidake-sen [14], mentioned above. It has no connection to any other Nishitetsu-line, and acts mainly as a feeder to the subway [15] and the JR Kashii-sen [9]. It is also the only Nishitetsu-line with Cape gauge (1,067 mm), while all other Nishitetsu-trains (including the now closed tram lines) run on 1,435 mm.

Nishitetsu's tram lines, this is a sad story. Nishitetsu used to have a large tram network, centered around KitaKyushu but all is gone now. The last section to Orio closed on 25 November 2000, and I was lucky to be there a month before. It seems unbelievable, that a tram route, on segregated track, with a service of 9 trams per hour in the morning peak (!) had to close. I think that the remaining tram section was just too small with high fixed costs, on the other hand it seems strange that the Chikuho Electric Railway [16] does not operate this section. The Chikuho Dentetsu is an interurban with seems to have a good future, as several new cars were bought recently. Back to Nishitetsu's tram routes. Also the routes closed earlier often had segregated track, which is now partly turned into a busway were only Nishitetsu buses run. I have seen this route near Kyushu Kodai-mae (a few minutes walk from the station, JR Kagoshima-hon-sen, two stops west of Kokura).

Nishitetsu series 6050

Nishitetsu series 6050, at Shin-Sakaemachi/Omuta,
by Oliver Mayer, April 2000.

Nishitetsu series 2000

Nishitetsu series 2000, at Ohashi/Fukuoka,
by Oliver Mayer, October 1994.

Nishitetsu series 8000

Nishitetsu series 8000 at Futsukaichi,
by Oliver Mayer, October 1994.

Third Sector
There are two third sector railways operating in this area, the Amagi Railway [12] and the Heisei Chikuho Railway [13]. As northern Kyushu has a high population density, both railways have good passenger loadings and therefore good financial results, rather unusual for third sector lines.

The Amagi Tetsudo is 13.7 km long and has 7 DMUs to run on its line. All cars were built by Fuji Heavy Industries, class AR-100 (6 cars, 15.50 m long) in 1986, and class AR-200 (1 car, 18.50 m long) in 1992. The line was opened in 1939, and taken over from JNR in 1986. The trains run in a regular pattern of 30 minutes, which is a very frequent service for such a line.

The Heisei Chikuo Tetsudo is one of the largest third sector lines, with a total of 49.2 km. It owns 16 DMUs, built in 1989 and 1991 by Fuji Heavy Industry. It has three lines, which have the same names as they had in JNR times. Most routes were opened in the 1890s, and were taken over from JNR in the first year of Emperor Akihito (the Heisei era), which was 1989 - therefore the first part of the name. The second part Chikuho stands for the area. Once part of an important and dense network of railway lines, this is one of the few remaining routes. One can easily see the importance of this railway, as the Ita-Line between Nogata and Tagawa-Ita has two tracks (since 1911). I cannot think of any other third sector line which has that! Service is quite intense, with 2-3 trains per hour on most sections. And you can still see freight trains in Kanada station (not Canada!), where the Itoda-Line to Tagawa-Gotoji branches off.

The city of KitaKyushu (literally: Northern Kyushu was formed in the 1960s, when Kokura, Yahata (or Yawata), Tobata, Wakamatsu and Moji merged to become a city of slightly more than one million inhabitants. Therefore, no station called "KitaKyushu exists, the main station is Kokura, where the Shinkansen also stops.

While Kokura station is a bit dark and narrow for photographing, I found Space World station most interesting. Although only local trains stop there (except on weekends and holidays, when even limited expresses unload thousands of visitors to the Space World theme park), it is excellent for trainspotting. Besides two tracks for passenger trains, there are also two freight tracks. And the freight traffic is still quite heavy. Just off Space World station is the first modern blast furnace of Japan from 1901, nicely preserved.

KitaKyushu is full of industry (especially Nippon Steel), and from the trains you can see quite much of it. You can also enjoy a good view from the Wakato-Bridge, which is a road bridge between Wakamatsu and Tobata stations. I got off the train at Tobata station and walked over to the bay, then took the ferry to Wakamatsu. It leaves every 7-20 min and costs 50 Yen. At Wakamatsu, I walked to the train station and took a bus over the Wakato-Bridge. This is a high suspension bridge with a nice view over the Tobata-works of Nippon Steel.

The north-eastern end of the Kyushu railway network is Moji-ko, Moji harbour. The station building is among the oldest in Japan, and fits nicely into the historical area of this port. As Moji-ko is the terminus for many services, a wide variety of trains can be seen standing along the sidings. The largest workshop in the area is however near Moji station, where also the Kanmon-Tunnel to Shimonseki begins. At Moji, you can also see the unique locos of class EF 30, that are only operating inside the tunnel. They are made from stainless steel to resist corrosion from the humid climate in the tunnel. The tunnel was actually opened in 1942 (first tube) and 1944 (second tube). Before the tunnels, there was a ferry service from Shimonoseki to Moji, but it is unclear where exactly the ferry terminal in Moji was.

Finally, there are two interesting railways in KitaKyushu. One is the monorail [17], which starts at Kokura station, and the other is the Hobashira Cable Car [not shown]. Going up the mountain, you have a wonderful view over KitaKyushu. Unfortunately it was closed for rebuilding on my last visit, scheduled to reopen this June. To get to the cable car, walk straight southwards from Yahata station for about 1.5 km. The cable car costs 800 Yen, plus 300 Yen for a lift at the top of the mountain. Is is operated daily from 9.00 to 18.30 (17.30 in January and February) and until 21.30 on weekends, summer holidays and in December. By the way, if you like this view, then you can stay at a public hotel (kokumin shukusha) on the top of the mountain. I can also strongly recommend the Youth Hostel Hinoyama in Shimonoseki (said to be one of the three best hostels in Japan), which offers a wonderful view of the Kammon Strait together with good meals and very friendly staff.

This is probably the most fascinating area for railfans right now, as DD 51s are operating passenger trains there. As I am writing this, they are still running, but the Chikuho Main line [3] is being electrified now, and the electric service is to start on 6 October this year (source: Tetsudo Fan 4/2001). Then I expect all diesel trains and DMUs to be withdrawn, and a new EMU class 817 will take over. The work to electrify this line started on 27 August 1997, and includes the Chikuho hon-sen [3] between Orio and Keisen (34.5 km), the Sasaguri-sen [2] between Yoshizuka (near Hakata) and Keisen (25.1 km), and the diesel tracks between Kurosaki and Orio (5.2 km of the Kagoshima-hon-sen [1]). The section between Harada and Keisen of the Chikuho Main Line, served by only 7 trains per day, will remain unchanged. The new class 817 EMUs will come in pairs, so a total of 38 cars form 19 units. Nogata will be the centre of operation, the station is being rebuilt with new sidings on the southern end. The diesel depot at Shinnyu may be given up later. Now it hosts many old DMUs, I saw classes ki ha 28, 47, 52, 58, 66 and 67 as well as DD 51 871 standing there.

DD51 1004 being coupled to a passeneger train

The DD51 1004 being coupled to a passeneger train serving the Chikuho Main Line, at Harada, a junction on the Kagoshima Main Line,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

3-car articulated Chikuho Dentetsu series 2000

3-car articulated Chikuho Dentetsu series 2000, ex-Nishitetsu tram, taken near Chikuho Nogata.
By Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

Chikuho Dentetsu series 3000 crossing the Onga River

Chikuho Dentetsu series 3000 crossing the Onga River, north of Chikuho-Nogata,
by Oliver Mayer, October 2000.

Back to today's operations. The most heavily used section of the Chikuho hon-sen [3] is between Orio and Nogata with 3 trains per hour most of the day. Trains start either at Wakamatsu or Kurosaki, some also as far back as Yahata, Kokura and Moji-ko. The line is double-track throughout from Wakamatsu to Iizuka. Some trains run as rapids, but limited to the sections north of Nogata and south of Iizuka. As mentioned before, the section from Keisen to Harada will not be electrified. Today there are no through services on this section, except to Iizuka early in the morning. Most trains on the Chikuho hon-sen are actually connected to the Sasaguri-sen [2], so forming direct links between Hakata/Fukuoka and the Chikuho region. The Sasaguri-sen is however single-track, and even the rapid trains have to wait sometimes to let other trains pass by.

Trains are operated mostly by DMUs. The trains through to Hakata are normally ki ha 200, nice red DMUs (2- or 4-car trains), while on many other services very old DMUs run. The last loco-hauled trains are 6.50 from Nogata to Moji-ko and back to Nogata at 17.22, and a second train 6.44 from Iizuka to Wakamatsu, at 16.00 back to Iizuka (this train only Monday to Friday). These are hauled by DD 51s.

Three lines remain to be described. The Gotoji-sen [18] runs between Tagawa-Gotoji and Shin-Iizuka about once per hour, passing by a spectacular looking cement works. The Hita-Hikosan Line [5] starts in Jono (many through trains to Kokura) and goes via Tagawa-Ita to Hita. Services are one or two trains per hour between Kokura and Tagawa-Gotoji, and every one or two hours further on to Hita. Actually between 10.00 and 16.00 there are no through trains to Kokura, passengers have to use a local train of the Nippo Line [4] instead and change at Jono, where the Hita-Hikosan Line officially starts. The line seems to have been double-tracked in the past, but is single track now, and it is slow: trains take 2 1/2 hours for 83 kilometres from Kokura to Hita. When I was last on this line in 1998, there was still one rapid a day; this train has been withdrawn now. Only the oldest DMUs are running there, but I expect more modern cars to be transfered from the Chikuho Main Line after its electrification.

The Kyudai-hon-sen [6] runs accross Kyushu from Kurume to Oita via Hita. While limited express services are offered by the Yufu (Hataka - Beppu) three times a day with DMU class 185, on some days the Yufuin no Mori runs with a spectacular looking rebuilt DMU class ki ha 71 (train no. 1 from 1989) and ki ha 183-1000 (train no. 2 from 1992). Both trains offer good panoramic views. Train no. 1 is a high-decker, and train no. 2 looks similar to old Meitetsu expresses. Normal service is by class ki ha 125 DMU in yellow livery.

Two very interesting private freight lines remain to be described, but I plan to do this in a later article. One is Nippon Steel's freight line to connect the Tobata and Yahata works (crossing JR near Kyushu Kodai-mae and Edamitsu), and the other is in Omuta, serving a Mitsui Cemical plant. Both lines are electrified and served by unique and old locomotives. Two unusual interruptions of service happend during my week in Kyushu The first one was on a level crossing at Tashiro station (which is one station north of Tosu). Tashiro is a small passenger station with just the two through tracks of the main line, but with a large container yard and several adjactent freight tracks. The space used for the freight yard means that the level crossing north of the station is quite long, around 50 metres. Although Japanese level crossings open and close very fast, one car driver was extremely impaitent and started to drive over the tracks when the barriers had already started to close. He was then trapped inside the barriers, standing on the main line tracks, and the limited express Kamome 30 was approaching. Then a large flashing red light turned on, together with a loud buzzing sound, and the Kamome came to an emergency stop about 300 metres before the level crossing. A railway worker from the freight yard came, opened the barriers and freed the car, and after a few minutes the train could continue its journey.

The second one was a day later at Kokura station, when the sleeper Hayabusa/Sakura from Tokyo in its way to Kumamoto/Nagasaki arrived 17 minutes late at 9.16. As the track layout at Kokura makes it necessary for some trains to cross several tracks at level, Sonic 6 to Hakata left 5 min late at 9.21, Nichirin 5 to Oita also left 5 min late at 9.25, a rapid to Nogata 3 min late at 9.28, a local to Futsukaichi 3 min late at 9.31 and Sonic 8 to Hakata 4 min late at 9.43.

Finally, I can recommend to visit Kyushu. There are many more interesting places and trains to see, and also Korea is not far away. Except for a few rural routes, trains are modern and fast, and it is a delight to see the brilliant interior and exterior design of the JR Kyushu trains.

For more details, see the maps in Bullet-in nos. 35 and 37 or in 'Electric Railways of Japan' vol. 3 (LRTA, available through JRS Sales).

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