A Trip Report
Page 2

By Kenneth Lin

JR East's Nagano Shinkansen series E2
JR East's Series E2 serving newly opened Nagano Shinkansen
JR East's NAkita Shinkansen series E3
JR East's Series E3 running along the Tohoku Shinkansen
Inside cab of Shinkansen series E3
Inside Shinkansen Series E3 cab.
Planning the trip
The JNTO Timetable
The summary timetable of major train routes published by the Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) is a good starting point for obtaining rail schedules and basic train travel information. This timetable is issued free of charge and available from JNTO in the United States. There are few Japanese train timetables printed in English and the JNTO timetable is one of them. The British imported Thomas Cook's Overseas Timetable is another popular English language timetable, but for a trip to Japan it is rather bulky (since it lists rail services around the world as well) and it is expensive, costing approximately $24.00 plus postage.

The JNTO timetable lists the schedules for principal train services, along with some helpful hints on rail travel. Unfortunately, in the March 1997 edition of the JNTO timetable, there were a few instances where the map route index number and corresponding schedule reference numbers did not match up, which is a source of confusion.

While the Thomas Cook's Overseas Timetable helpfully lists overnight trains, including those with sleeping cars, for some unknown reason the JNTO timetable has never listed nor publicised those trains. I have always thought this was particularly odd, since many independent rail travelers to Japan, accustomed to using overnight European trains would enjoy similar comforts and time savings in Japan.

Using overnight trains and sleeping cars are part of the strategy for affordable independent travel within Japan. While West Japan Railway's "Legato" and other overnight seated services can be enjoyed free of extra charge with a JR Pass, the B-type sleepers and the similarly priced Solo Compartments are relatively good value when hotel cost savings and time savings are simultaneously considered. While B-type sleepers (~US $85.00 Tokyo to Hakata) are priced at about the same price as a typical Japanese business hotel in Hakata (~US $85.00), the ability to save several hours of travel time (even by the fast Shinkansen trains) and arrive in a new city in the morning is an advantage of sleeper travel in Japan.

Most travelers to Japan are fairly content to ply the main train routes, such as the Shinkansen lines and various conventional lines to popular destinations as Sapporo, Nikko, Nara, Nagasaki and the like. For lesser known rural train services, the JNTO timetable may list only the limited express trains operating on that line, while in reality there may be more frequent service provided by slightly slower regional trains on that route. The JNTO timetable gives the impression that those trains listed are the only trains available on that route. Of course, while it would be physically impossible to list all trains on a particular branch line without substantially increasing the number of pages in their timetable, perhaps a footnote could mention that other trains are available on that route. To aid the traveler, perhaps the corresponding page numbers in the monthly JR system timetable could be provided.

JR system timetable
Those travelers who make an effort to digest the JR system timetable (published monthly in Japanese) are rewarded with a cornucopia of information about the railway system, including the schedules of the private railway operators and third sector railways. I have used and collected railway timetables from around the world, and I know of no other railway timetable which contains such a vast range of information, including:

A particularly impressive aspect is that a JR System Timetable is even published at all. It is quite easy to imagine that with the balkanisation of the former JNR into several railways, no comprehensive timetable might be published, since there might not be a coordinating entity to coordinate and publish such a timetable. A similar concern existed in Britain during their recent railway privatisation; British consumer groups worried that a national railway timetable listing all trains might not be published as each railway might not want to divulge train information which could benefit its competitors. If there was no System Timetable containing the schedules for each of the JR railways, then customers would have to collect several timetables-- one for each JR railway-- a tiresome and daunting effort.

While it may be impractical to translate the system timetable into English due to limited, specialised demand, the monthly Japan Railways System Timetable could take a cue from other European railways (such as in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.) by publishing an English language "frontpiece." The translated frontpiece could contain helpful information to make the JR System Timetable more decipherable to overseas visitors, including:

Since the JR System Timetables are stocked in Green Class magazine racks on major trains, such as the Shinkansen, by including the above frontpiece, the System Timetable would become more useful to overseas visitors.

Some of the most helpful features of the monthly System Timetable should also be included into JNTO's summary timetable to make it even more useful. Such information to be added to JNTO timetable could include:

East Japan Railways Web Site
One of the powerful aspects of the Internet is that information which was once difficult to come by can be readily accessed from any computer connected to the World Wide Web. A number of railways worldwide have recently introduced web sites, including:

The Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada sites allow customers to look up train schedules, see photos of different types of trains, obtain actual fare information (not just sample fare information), and book reservations directly on line. Tickets may be issued by mail or picked up at stations.

Thus, should a traveler residing in Topeka, Kansas wish to peruse Amtrak, VIA Rail or even Swiss train schedules at say, 3:00 am, he can readily access various web sites to provide that information. Compare this to the pre-Internet days when those timetables physically had to be obtained (generally by mail, with many days delay)-- if they could even be found. Even by telephone the process is cumbersome; perhaps several telephone calls might be required during office hours to US sales agents for overseas railways such as Britrail Travel in New York City.

The East Japan Railways web site provides some useful information for those planning a trip to Japan, including a gallery of photographs depicting various types of East JR trains. The plethora of new and imaginative rolling stock appears to have been a result of the new customer focus in the ten years of JR, and depicting them on the web site helps sell travelers on the merits of traveling Japan by train.

The next step would be for either this web site, or another web site, to offer:

Likely, the easiest way to develop such a web site would be to develop the site primarily for the domestic Japanese market, while simultaneously developing an English language component to the site. To help defray the operating and maintenance costs of such a web site, advertising space (banner ads, text ads, pop-up ads) etc. could be judiciously used. Such ad space might appeal to hotels, travel agencies, sightseeing destinations and similar enterprises.

Aspects of Japan Railways service
Airport access
Currently the topic of considerable debate within the New York City region, several Japanese gateway international airports feature convenient railway access, including Narita Airport (served by two competing railways), Haneda Airport (currently served by monorail only), Kansai Airport (also served by two competing railways), Fukouka Airport (via city subway) and Shin-Chitose Airport. Rail access to/from each of these airports offers a quick, convenient, and comparatively affordable way of reaching the city center. Narita and Kansai Airports both benefit from two competing railways which serve different city center destinations, offer different fares and provide different travel times.

The time sensitive and the budget sensitive travelers can select from a variety of trains to/from the city center which best meets their requirements.

Train punctuality
Consistent before and after the "privatisation" of JNR into JR has been the Japanese obsession for operating trains on-time and to the second. JR's time keeping performance is impressive. A few years ago, East Japan Railways recorded an average delay for all of their high speed Shinkansen scheduled trains at approximately 12 seconds!

By contrast, many railroads or transit operators in the United States consider a train to be on-time if it arrives at its terminal (not necessarily intermediate stations!) within 5 minutes of its scheduled arrival time. Amtrak uses a sliding scale to measure on-time performance, and their concept of on-time performance corresponds to the distance traveled. Thus a Los Angeles to Chicago Amtrak train could arrive Chicago one hour late and still be considered "on-time" according to Amtrak. In Japan, on-time means precisely that-- on-time, to the second.

The on-time operation of trains in Japan has been a consistent hallmark during each of my trips there. After five rail-oriented trips to Japan involving numerous train trips (at least 400+ train trips), I am hardpressed to recall more than ten trains which suffered from delays surpassing 5 minutes-- and no more than a handful which were delayed greater than 15 minutes! In my opinion, Japanese trains are the most punctual in the world, consistently surpassing other well run railways in Germany, Switzerland and France.

A common concern in many countries is that perhaps privatisation might cause a lowering of timekeeping standards as the railway organisational culture becomes slack and more tolerant of operational delays. In the ten years of JR, cause for such worries have not materialised in Japan.

Knowing that trains in Japan are almost always on-time actually makes for a very relaxing trip, since very tight train connections can be made. Though probably not recommended for the novice traveler to Japan, during the July 1997 trip I managed to make several train connections with only 1-2 minutes scheduled between trains! With such tight connecting times, the main constraint becomes the amount of time it takes to walk (or run) from one platform to another.

While I experienced zero train delays on some trips, this year there were two instances where delays were noted:

In addition, it appears that train delays are expected and anticipated in the schedule of at least two afternoon Narita Express trains leaving Narita International Airport, as they were both checked by signals on the single track section just west of the airport tunnel. Ironically, this single track section is set on a larger viaduct structure (which can accommodate multiple tracks) originally designed for Shinkansen service to Narita Airport.

JR Staff courtesy
Reflecting the culture of the country, during this trip I observed that the railway staff (i.e. ticket clerks, conductors, station barrier staff, restaurant car staff, car cleaners, and other visible public staff), were consistently courteous and polite.

Such was the consistently high level of politeness, that attention then focused on very subtle shades where a particular employee might be perceived as being slightly less polite than the others. During the July trip only two JR employees, both restaurant car employees (one on the Grand Hikari, the other on the Hokutosei) were ever so subtly perceived as being not as service oriented as the rest.

The overall high level of JR staff courtesy is in sharp contrast to variable levels of staff courtesy that a Japanese traveler to the United States might find on Amtrak trains, where it is possible to encounter employees ranging from extremely pleasant to downright belligerent within the same train!

For the North American tourist to Japan, particularly those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, customs and geography, helpful assistance can always be found by contacting a railway staff member.

Sleeping car services
As previously mentioned, sleeping cars are a convenient way to simultaneously travel and save time, while paying a ticket supplement comparable to business hotel rates.

Unfortunately, Japan Rail Pass holders must pay a proportionately higher rate for traveling by sleeper than in daytime trains, since pass holders must pay for both the sleeping car supplement as well as the limited express surcharge. I have always wondered why passholders must pay the limited express surcharge when booking sleepers since limited express surcharges are included in daytime train fares. Additionally, despite the higher price paid, Green Class pass holders are not offered any advantage (over Ordinary Class passholders) towards the purchase of higher category sleeping accommodations. This tariff policy is in contrast to European trains where first class rail pass holders can book first class sleeping compartments and second class rail pass holders can book second class sleeping compartments at proportionately the same rate.

JR sleeping cars, regardless of the type of accommodation booked, feature Japanese robes, slippers-- although US travelers might notice the lack of wash cloths or towels in B-type sleepers. Since privatisation, it appears that the variety of sleeping car types and configurations have increased. During the JNR era, open berth B-type sleepers, arrayed in bays of four beds, represented the most economical and common category of sleeping accommodations.

Today, individual Solo compartments and two-person Duet compartments offer greater privacy, additional amenities (i.e. card key entry, radio, alarm clock), yet they are priced at the same tariff as the traditional open berth B-type sleeper. These compartments, in my opinion, represent better value for money than the traditional B-type beds. During my travels in 1992 and 1993, many of these Duets and Solo sleepers were fresh and new.

Alas, during the July 1997 trip, I noticed that some of the newer sleeping cars suffered from poor interior maintenance. A Duet compartment in which I traveled between Hakata and Okayama was disappointing. The interior was ragged and worn, in sharp contrast to the usual JR standards of maintenance whereby even the oldest railcars appear pristine. The Duet compartment carpet was heavily soiled, wall paper peeled from the compartment ceiling, cushions were worn, and the toilets at the end of the car has accumulated grime in corners, nooks and crannies.

Even the interior and maintenance of the flagship Hokutosei overnight trains between Ueno and Sapporo which shone brightly upon introduction in 1989 now appeared somewhat tired and in need of interior refurbishment. For instance, the upholstery in the Lobby Car was beginning to wear, while the overall color scheme and fittings appeared somewhat dated.

Alarmingly, it was my perception that sleeping car travel seemed to be less patronised than on prior trips-- although I do not have specific ridership numbers to support this perception. The trains with the most overnight ridership appeared to be the various Hokutosei trains. I hope that this was a mis-impression on my part, as I wish to see a vital network of time saving, luxury sleeping car trains serve Japan well into the next century.

According to Mr. Takaki and Mr. Komoto of West Japan Railways, new electric multiple unit sleeping cars are currently under development. The use of electric multiple unit sleepers is unique to Japan; I know of no other railway in the world which utilises such rolling stock.

Rolling stock climate control
Of the five trips to Japan, the July 1997 trip was my second trip during the rainy season. A consistent problem which I encountered was the tepid air conditioning found in Green Class cars. Oddly enough, many Ordinary Class railcars on the same trains appeared to have sufficient air conditioning. There were three problems that were we noted with the rolling stock air conditioning:

Among the trains noted with weak air conditioning were:

Train station improvements
For customers, train stations serve as the "front door" to their railway experience, and upon completion of the journey, it serves as a lasting impression of their trip. Prior to privatisation many JNR stations were interesting places to visit for those interested in trains and railways, but it seemed the majority of the JNR era stations had a somewhat functional style and appearance.

Today, ten years after privatisation, several new stations have been constructed (in Kyoto, Kansai International Airport. Akita, Nagano-- to name a few) and many others have been refurbished (Hakata, Osaka, Tokyo)-- often to a remarkable transformation from their former appearance.

For example, the transformation of Hakata Station has been dramatic; whereas the station was previously lacking in ambience and style, today it features imaginative uses of station finishes and fixtures to create a modern image commensurate with a reborn Japan Railways system.

For U.S. travelers to Japan, larger stations are virtual cities within a city. Today, the larger stations feature hotels, a variety of retail shops, department stores, a range of restaurants, bars, kiosks, and other helpful conveniences such as banking machines and tourist information offices.

The most imaginative rolling stock in the world
Perhaps nowhere else is the creative spirit of the new JR Group of companies more evident than that exhibited by the wide variety of new rolling stock which is continuously being introduced. While there was some variety of rolling stock designs during the JNR period, there has been a virtual explosion of new, noteworthy vehicles and trainsets since privatisation. These imaginative new designs are aimed at aggressively enticing travelers to the rails.

It seems that almost monthly, some type of new rolling stock is being introduced. The new trains added within in the past decade appear to be grouped into the following market categories:

Without a doubt, the design and styling of Japanese trains are the most creative and the most imaginative in the world. Impressive is the fact that new standards of customer comfort have spread to all parts of the rail network, instead of being focused on just one or two market segments-- such as just on the high speed trains or the airport express services.

In my discussions with overseas visitors and tourists (i.e. non-transportation planners), even the casual tourist cannot help but to notice the incredible variety of Japanese trains plying the rails. And quite often many visitors ask "why can't we have such stylish or comfortable trains in the United States?" Good question-- why indeed?

Given the dramatic improvements which have occurred during the first ten years of Japan Railways, and the current momentum of progress, I can scarcely wait to see what exciting developments the next decade of service will bring.

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Kenneth Lin is the vice president of the National Railway Historical Soceity (NRHS) New York Chapter.
This article and all the photos contained copyright Kenneth Lin.
If you have any comments, please e-mail to
iyayospamKenneth.Lin@Alum.MIT.Edu remove the protective prefix 'iyayospam' before composing.

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