By Kenneth Lin
|JR East's Series E2 serving newly opened Nagano Shinkansen|
|JR East's Series E3 running along the Tohoku Shinkansen|
|Inside Shinkansen Series E3 cab.|
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.
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
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.
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
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
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:
Aspects of Japan Railways service
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.