Japanese Railway Ships

Page 1




By W.A. Pearce

For more than ninety years what in Japanese are called tetsudo renraku fune or in English, 'Railway connecting ships' or 'Railway ferries', have plied the waters around Japan. This title indicates the main duty of these vessels, which is to provide connections, along what are called 'Navigation Routes' (N.R.) between railways in the Japanese home islands, and also, in earlier times, connections to overseas parts of the Japanese empire.

However, not all of these routes did actually connect with railways at both ends, some short routes provided a connection from a railway to a place without trains. Of this type of N.R. probably the best known, and now (1999) the only surviving route is that down the bay from Hiroshima, which runs from a wharf adjacent to the railway station at Miyajima-guchi across to the sacred island of Miyajima, also known as Ikutsujima. Fig. 1 shows the navigation routes operating in 1976, and also those major routes which existed prior to the end of the Pacific War in August 1945.

Click here to see Fig.1

But the first of Japan's railway ships did not sail on salt water, but on the fresh water of Lake Biwa, the large lake to the north of Kyoto. In the early 1880s the Government Railway's Tokaido line was being built from Tokyo to Osaka, by way of Kyoto, and by 1882 its head of construction was approaching the eastern side of Lake Biwa from the north. To connect onwards from the railhead towards Kyoto, in 1882 the Taiko Steamship Company was formed, whose purpose was to run a ferry service from the small lake port of Nagahama, adjacent to the Tokaido Line railhead, down to Otsu at the southernmost extremity of Lake Biwa, from whence connection could be made to Kyoto.

For this service, two single-screw 516 ton 14 knot steamers, No. 1 Taiko Maru (Fig. 2.) and No.2 Taiko Maru, each with a passenger capacity of 350 people, were launched on the lake in late 1883, and began operating the Otsu - Nagahama N.R. in 1884. These two ships were built by one Kirby, who is quoted as being 'an English resident of Kobe' and who probably was also involved with the Taiko Steamship Company as well.

As these little steamers plied their route, construction of the Tokaido Main Line towards Kyoto continued, and by 1889 this city had been reached, giving a continuous line of railway between Tokyo and Kyoto, and so the Otsu - Nagahama N.R. became redundant and was closed.

The fate of the two Taiko Marus is unknown, but it is probable that they continued in use as ferries on other routes on Lake Biwa.

By 1891, the privately owned Nippon Railway Company had completed its main line, now the Tohoku Main Line, north-eastwards from Tokyo to Aomori, a port town on the north-east coast of Honshu. However at this time passengers wishing to travel across the Tsugaru Strait to Hokkaido had to do so using the ships of the Japan Mail Ship Company, which ran between Aomori and Hakodate in Hokkaido.

At the other end of Honshu, the Sanyo Railway Company, another privately owned concern, was constructing its main line westwards from Kobe, its ultimate destination to be Shimonoseki on the Kammon Strait which runs between Honshu and Kyushu and by 1897 this line had reached the small coastal port of Tokuyama. From this port a steamer service was organised to run to Moji,in Kyushu, this route being named the Kammon N.R.The steamers operating on this route were the Bakan Maru and the Toyoura Maru, each of about 230 tons, carrying 116 second class passengers and 146 in third class, at speeds of about 10 1/2 knots.

The year 1901 saw the completion of the extension of the Sanyo Main Line from Tokuyama to Shimonoseki, the consequent closure of the Tokuyama - Moji navigation route, and the opening of a new route across the Kammon Strait between Shimonoseki and Moji, this route taking over the name Kammon N.R. The ships operating this N.R. were the Oseto Maru and the Shimonoseki Maru, both small twin-screw steamers of 188 tons, with a speed of 8 knots and the capacity to carry 29 first class, 48 second class and 258 third class passengers.

In 1902 a ferry connection across to Miyajima was begun by the Miyajima Voyage Company, and in March of 1903 the Sanyo Railway Co. opened two navigation routes across the Inland Sea to Shikoku. One of these routes ran from Okayama to Takamatsu, using the Tamamo Maru, and the other, with the Kojima Maru, ran between Onomichi on Honshu and Tadotsu on Shikoku. Both vessels were 224 ton twin-screw steamers, capable of over 10 knots and carrying 12 passengers in first class, 36 in second class and 98 in third class.

In May of 1903, the Miyajima N.R. was taken over by the Sanyo Railway Co.

The Hankaku Railway Company, a private company operating to the north of Osaka, in 1904/5 started up a couple of short navigation routes on Maizuru Bay on the Japan Sea coast of Honshu.

1905 also saw a much more important N.R., the first of the long-distance sea-going N.R.s, come into being. In this year, in Korea, which at that time was nominally part of the Japanese Empire, the Korean Government Railways line between the port of Pusan, at the southern extremity of the country, and the Korean capital Keijo (now Seoul), was opened for traffic.

This line was an important link in the communication chain between Tokyo and Keijo and to complete this chain, in September of 1905 the Sanyo Railway Co. set up the Kampu N.R. between Shimonoseki and Pusan. For this run the Sanyo Co. obtained two fast passenger ships, Iki Maru (Fig. 3) and Tsushima Maru. At 1,680 tons these two twin-screw steamers were by far the largest railway ships yet seen in Japan. Their 2,400 h.p. reciprocating engines drove them at 15 knots, and each could carry 18 first class, 64 second class and 235 third class passengers on the overnight journey.

Now, by using the Kampu N.R., the traveller leaving Tokyo could be in Keijo in sixty hours of which time the sea journey took eleven and a half hours, the total distance travelled being approximately 1,800 km.

Not to be outdone, the Nippon Railway Co. commissioned from the Scottish shipbuilders William Denny & Brothers Co. two triple-screw turbine engined steamers, Hirafu Maru and Tamura Maru. These 1,480 ton vessels could run at 18 knots and carry 22 first class passengers, 52 second class and 254 in third class. These ships began operating in October of 1906 across the Tsugaru Strait, their terminal ports being Aomori and Hakodate, and the navigation route so formed being called the Seikan N.R.

However, these four vessels only had a short period of operation under the colours of their respective private owners, for in November of 1906 the Japanese Government began the nationalization of the major private railways, purchasing the Nippon Co. in that same month, the Sanyo Co. in December, and the Hankaku and other companies in 1907, and so taking over the ships and navigation routes operated by these companies.

By mid 1908 the operation by the Japanese Government of the various N.R.s was well under way, the vessels on these routes now carrying the funnel colours and markings of the Railways Department of the Ministry of Engineering, as shown in Fig. 12(a).

In 1910 the railway from Okayama to Uno, on Honshu's south coast, was opened and the Uno-Takamatsu (Uko) N.R. came into service, the Okayama - Takamatsu and Unomichi - Tadotsu N.R.s being closed, with the Kojima Maru and Tamama Maru being transferred to this new route.

Up to this time all the railway ships were largely passenger carriers, some also having the capacity to carry small amounts of cargo as well as passengers.

The first steps towards the carriage of railway vehicles on these routes came in 1911, when the Kanshin N.R., from Shimonoseki to Kumorie in Kyushu began operation. On this route was introduced the car barge or car float, an un-powered barge with a line of rail laid on its deck, onto which three railway waggons could be loaded from a suitable dock, the loaded barge then being towed by a steam tug to its destination, where after some complex manouvering it was docked and the waggons unloaded. From contemporary photographs, it seems that the railway track between the barge and the dock was only a pair of rails on sleepers, with a very spidery supporting structure beneath, and that the railway waggons, four-wheeled box vans, were pushed onto and off the barge by man-power! Twelve car barges, called kasha hashike, and at least three tugboats, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Sangu Maru provided this service.

So now there were two railway ferry services between Honshu and Kyushu, the Kammon N.R. for passengers and the Kanshin N.R. for freight in railway waggons.

The years 1912 and 1913 saw some changes in the N.R.s on Maizuru Bay, with one route being closed and another sold to a private company.

Also in 1913 two sizeable ships, the Koma Maru and Shiragi Maru entered service on the Kampu N.R. These were both 3,000 ton twin-screw steamers, with speeds of 16 knots and passenger capacities of 43 in first class, 120 in second class and 440 in third class, with a crew of 109. The Koma Maru served until 1933, when it was taken out of service and scrapped, the Shiragi Maru became a war loss in 1945.

In 1914 a second car barge and tug operation began, on the Seikan N.R. Only a single barge was used there, the 40 m long Shaun Maru, which could carry a single locomotive or passenger coach or several goods waggons. Fig. 4 shows Shaun Maru under tow by by the tug Sakurajima Maru. Shaun Maru continued in service on the Seikan N.R. until 1927, by which year it had transported over 5,000 vehicles.

With the growth of rail traffic after the Great War, the need arose for a more efficent method of transporting railway vehicles across the Kammon Strait than that provided by the car barge and tugboat system then in use. This need was met by the introduction in 1919 on the Kanshin N.R. of Japan's first self-propelled train ferries, No. 1 and No. 2 Kammon Maru. These two 463 ton vessels were double-ended, with side paddle wheels, two funnels, one on each side of the hull and a raised bridge over a single, central railway track, on which could be loaded seven 7 ton waggons. Ten third class passengers could also be carried, and a speed of 10 knots could be reached.

The double-ended, self-propelled design of these vessels meant that docking and undocking could be carried out more expeditously than could be done with the car barges and so turn-around times were significantly reduced, with a consequent increase in the number of waggons that could be transported each day. The car barge and tugboat operation on the Kanshin N.R. ceased in 1922.

In 1921 the Oshima Ferryboat Association was set up by the Yamaguchi Prefectural Government to operate a ferry service to the island of Yashiro Jima in the Inland Sea, after the Pacific War this route became a railway N.R.

On the northern island of Hokkaido, by November of 1922 the Soya Main Line had been opened for traffic, this line continued the Hakodate Main Line from Asahikawa right up to the port town of Wakkanai, about as far north as one could go by rail on the Japanese home islands. Further north again, across the La Perouse or Soya Strait, is the long, narrow island of Sakhalin. Possession of this island, or parts of it, varied over the years between Russia (Czarist and Soviet) and Japan, by 1920 the Japanese were in possession of all of the island, its Japanese name then being Karafuto.

Development of the resources of Karafuto by the Japanese saw the construction of a number of narrow-gauge industrial railways, and a 1067 mm gauge main line railway system, generally known as the Karafuto Government Railway. This railway development was largely in the southern part of the island, below 50 North latitude.

With the arrival of the Soya Main Line at Wakkanai, it became obvious that a Government N.R. to Karafuto could be worth while, so in August of 1923 the Chihaku N.R., running between Wakkanai and Otomari, a railway junction and port in the south of Karafuto came into service.

Whilst the Karafuto Government Railway was the same gauge as that of the Japanese Government system, no thought was given to the use of train ferries on this route, all of the ships that operated on the Chihaku N.R. were passenger or cargo-passenger vessels. The first ship on this route was the Tsushima Maru, transferred from the Kampu N.R in 1923, followed a year later by the Iki Maru also from the same N.R. Both of these ships had been rebuilt with re-inforced hulls and ice-breaker pattern bows for operation in the ice-bound waters north of Hokkaido.

The increase in railway traffic in the early 1920s saw the launching of a number of new railway ships. On the Seikan N.R. two small, wooden hulled cargo steamers, Shirakami Maru and Tappi Maru, each of 841 tons, with a cargo capacity of 985 tons and a speed of 10 knots entered service in 1920. In 1922-23 the Kampu N.R. received three new vessels, Keifuku Maru, Shokei Maru and Tokuju Maru. These were sister ships, of 3,600 tons, turbine powered with twin screws, capable of making about 20 1/2 knots and accomodating 45 passengers in first class, 210 in second class and 690 in third class.

On the Kanshin N.R. two more side-wheeler train ferries, No. 3 and No. 4 Kammon Maru, of similar design to their elder sisters, entered service in 1921-22. Fig. 5 shows No. 3 Kammon Maru.

Late in 1921, a car barge and tugboat service began on the Uko N.R., using barges Taka Nos. 1-14, each carrying three goods waggons. A contemporary photograph shows one of the Uko N.R. passenger ferries, probably Tamamo Maru, with a Taka barge lashed to each side and two more towing astern.

The short Miyajima N.R. saw the arrival in 1922 of the Misen Maru, which had originally been the Oseto Maru, and the Shimonoseki Maru, both of these vessels coming from the Kammon N.R., and both of which had long lives, surviving into the 1950s.

Further additions to the Uko N.R. fleet came in 1924 with the arrival of the Sanyo Maru and Nankai Maru, each of 561 tons, twin screw, turbine engined, 14 knot speed, with a passenger capacity of 158 in second class and 899 in third class, along with 14 hand carts!

The most significant addition to the fleet of railway ships came in 1924, when on the Seikan N.R. was introduced the first of the big sea-going train ferries, Shoho Maru. This vessel, one of four sister ships, had a covered vehicle deck with three lines of railway track, on which could be carried 25 wa mu class goods waggons. Accomodation for 39 first class passengers, 208 in second class and 648 in third class was also provided. Shoho Maru and her sisters, Hiran Maru, Matsumae Maru and Tsugaru Maru, were each of about 3,450 tons, with turbine engines driving twin screws and giving them speeds of approximately 17 knots.

The two funnels of these ships were arranged one on each side of the hull, thus giving a somewhat confusing appearance from certain viewpoints. This confusion became more so with later, four-funneled ships which had pairs of funnels on each side.

The introduction of these four train ferries on the Seikan N.R. brought about a considerable increase in the number of rail freight waggons moving between Honshu and Hokkaido compared with what had been handled by the original car barge and tugboat system, which ceased operations in 1927.

In 1926, No. 1 Seikan Maru (Fig.no.7) entered service on the Seikan N.R. This vessel was of a simpler design than the four ships of the Shoho Maru class in that it had an open vehicle deck. Its tonnage was only 2,400, but its four tracks could carry 43 waggons. Turbine engines drove twin screws which gave a speed of 13 1/2 knots. No passengers were carried.

On the Chihaku N.R., in 1927 the rebuilt Tsushima Maru was replaced by the purpose-built ice-breaker ferry, Aniwa Maru. This 16 knot twin screw reciprocating engined steamer of 3,300 tons could accomodate 18 first class, 102 second class and 754 third class passengers and had a cargo capacity of 470 tons.

At the beginning of 1930 there were 27 railway ships in service, running on seven navigation routes, the Kampu N.R. having the largest fleet of 6 vessels. In addition there were smaller vessels such as tugs, work boats, lighters etc. for harbour service.

The Uko N.R. was the next route to introduce train ferries, in November of 1929 the small train ferry, No. 1 Uko Maru of 300 tons, with a capacity of ten wa mu class waggons on two tracks but with no passenger accomodation entered service on this route. This vessel was fitted with two diesel engines, giving it a speed of 8 1/2 knots and was the first and for many years, the only, railway ship to be fitted with this new power source.

In 1932 No. 2 Seikan Maru, a sister ship to No. 1 Seikan Maru entered service on the Seikan N.R. Also in that year another ice-breaker ferry, the Soya Maru, came into use on the Chihaku N.R., replacing the rebuilt Iki Maru. The Soya Maru was similar in size, speed and capacity to the earlier Aniwa Maru, and like this vessel it had reciprocating engines, and indeed was the last Japanese railway ship to be built with this type of steam engine.

From the point of view of passenger traffic, the Kampu N.R. was always the prestige route, and in 1937 two large and fast passenger liners entered service on this run. These were the Koan Maru and the Kongo Maru, both of 7,000 tons, with passenger accomodation for 46 in first class, 316 in second class and 1,384 in third class, with 159 in the crew. Their turbines, which developed over 17,000 h.p., gave them speeds in excess of 23 knots, and no doubt these ships would have been the pride of the railway ship fleet on their introduction.

By 1939 the war in China (The China Incident), had been going for several years, and preparations for the forthcoming Pacific War against the U.S.A., the British and the Dutch were being undertaken. An increase in traffic on the Seikan N.R. was expected, and to handle this traffic more ferries for this route were required. A standard design of ferry, the `W' class, was prepared, this design was based on the recently launched No. 3 Seikan Maru, which was a larger, 2,800 ton closed vehicle deck version of No. 2 Seikan Maru, having a waggon capacity of 44 on four tracks, and a speed of over 17 knots.

Of this `W' class design, seven ships, No. 4 Seikan Maru to No. 10 Seikan Maru were built between 1943 and 1945, and others came into service after the end of the war.

Two straight-out cargo ships, Iki Maru (II) and Tsushima Maru (II) entered service on the Kampu N.R. in early 1941. These 3,500 tonners had a cargo capacity of 4,600 tons and a speed of 17 knots.

Continued to Page 2


General Notes




[Home Page]