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
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
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
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
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
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.