Urban Coal Train

EF65 and Coal Train 3471

Freight trains aren’t a major part of the Japanese railroading scene. With most of its industry on the coast, bulk freight largely travels by ship. And with the improved highways of the 1960’s and later, smaller freight had almost all moved to truck. Before its breakup, the Japan National Railway had already closed the bulk of its freight yards in 1985, leaving only a small quantity of mixed trains operating, in addition to unit trains of containers, oil, limestone and other bulk products. And most of those trains ran between port facilities or private sidings although there remain to this day a small number of freight yards (which are somehow different from the “freight marshaling yards” that were closed).

What remains of freight is often express traffic (like auto parts) or bulk goods that need to move inland. But in general the latter are either containers, tank cars or covered hoppers. Imagine my surprise, then, when I spotted a string of open-top high-side hopper cars on a siding near an oil terminal port facility while browsing the Tōkyō waterfront with Google Earth. Following the tracks led me to what looked like a coal dock (see Google Maps). Coal trains? In Japan? This didn’t make sense. I thought they’d ended all coal trains in the 1990‘s. I’d seen one reference (Japanese wikipedia) to the contrary, but I thought it referred to a private mine-to-port railway. Not quite, as it turns out.

Japan has coal reserves, but they’re reported to be of low quality (although one source said Hokkaido coal was of good quality but difficult to mine), mostly located at the two ends of the country. While it was still mined, this typically went straight to ships, when then delivered it to the destination. There was some transport by train using the SeKi class of hopper cars, but reportedly rail transport in the south largely ceased in 1985, and the most recent series of SeKi cars were scrapped by 1998 (Japanese Wikipedia for SeKi 3000 and SeKi 8000), with some converted to carry limestone to cement plants. Japanese domestic production had been declining for some time, but was kept active by government subsidies. Around 2000 the government began reducing these, with a goal of phasing them out by 2008 or so, and most of the mining industry shut down.

Japan had long been a very large importer of coal, both for power generation and other uses (steelmaking, for example). The largest in Asia for many years. The volume needed by their industry apparently outstripped any domestic production, or perhaps it was motivated by the lower cost of overseas coal. Again, most of this is delivered straight to industries located at the waterfront (some may be trucked to the final destination).

However, what I’d turned up was a rail-served coal dock that apparently belonged to an inland cement company. After the oil shortages of the 1970s they’d switched to coal for their plants, and acquired a number of HoKi 10000 series hopper cars in 1980/1981 (Japanese Wikipedia). Why these were given the usual hopper-car designation of HoKi rather than the coal-car hopper designation of SeKi isn’t clear. A few HoKi 10000’s were produced for another company, but have since been scrapped, leaving 250 in use by one company.

I posted about what I’d found on the JNS Forum, and more info was forthcoming. This included a roster of the cars showing them owned by Pacific Ocean Coal (which owned the only other Japanese coal railroading operation I knew of, a private railway, under the name Pacific Ocean Transport, see Japanese wikipedia). One comment on a Japanese blog described this as Japan’s last mainline coal train.

The company that bought the HoKi’s originally, Chichibu Cement, also owned a railway (the Chichibu Railway) that connected their plants to the JNR system, which may have motivated their continued use of railway transport. Chichibu went on to merge with other companies, including Pacific Ocean, eventually forming Taiheiyo Cement, now Japan’s largest cement producer. The Google Earth photo shows twenty HoKi’s at the terminal, and one video shows a twenty-car freight leaving the facility behind a DE11 (a heavy-weight, higher-horsepower, version of the DE10). It’s possible this train splits at some point, as Kawai sells two ten-pack sets of the HoKi’s noted as being assigned to different locations (Mikajiri Station and Sangai Railway), and video of trains on the Chichibu railway only show ten-car trains.

At the Tōkyō end, the trains operate over the JR East Tsurumi line from Ōgimachi Station (in Kawasaki, just south of Tōkyō) to the Kawasaki Freight terminal. From there they apparently operate through Tōkyō along the Yamanote Freight Line (which is largely used for passenger trains these days, and parallels the western arc of the Yamanote Line though major stations like Shinjuku) to reach the Takasaki line on the north-west side of the Tōkyō metropolitan area. On electrified JR lines the train is typically pulled by a single EF65, with Chichibu’s locomotives taking over once it reaches their tracks.

That was enough for me: a twenty-car coal drag running through passenger stations in the heart of Tōkyō, behind an EF65? I had to have one of those. Fortunately, the Kawai cars were still in stock, and I promptly ordered the two ten-packs (and got the last ones; they went out-of-stock, although there are still some HoKi’s available in smaller count sets). Duly ordered, these arrived quite quickly. I posed one set on the layout for the photo above, behind an EF65 in JR Freight colors. I’ve put additional photos in the Train Photo album.

The cars are very nice, with delicate detail and high-quality lettering. One car arrived with a wheel knocked out of the side frame, but that was quickly set right once I realized the problem. In the ten-pack sets, one car comes with permanently attached red disks used to signify the end of a train (which is nice, but complicates my plans for a twenty-car train). The cars are very light (too light, I think) but come with a packet of “coal” that can be used to fill them, which would make them more realistic in weight. I haven’t decided if I’ll use that or not.

By the way, although the HoKi’s are large by Japanese standards, at 35 tons they’re a small fraction of the typical 125 ton North American coal car size, largely due to Japans lighter-weight narrow-gauge track and smaller loading gauge (side and top clearances). The entire 20-car train hauls less than 1000 tons of coal, where North American coal trains are often ten times that (or more). Still, by Japanese standards this is a very substantial train. And it’s a valued addition to my roster.

Another thing you can see in the photo at the top of the page is how badly the old backdrop is peeling. The summer humidity did in the spray-glue I’d used (which was already having problems). My big backdrops that I did last winter using Mod-Podge were completely unaffected. So I’ll probably be re-doing the backdrop for the River Crossing scene fairly soon.

Website Move

The big move hasn’t happened yet, obviously. I’d planned to do it this weekend, but had some delays. I may do it during the week, but with the holiday weekend approaching it may get bumped to early September. That’s good, in that more pages will get moved to the new format (not counting the blog pages, I converted page number 100 this afternoon but there’s still a couple-dozen left). Aside from the construction pages, which I need to re-do, and perhaps some of the compilations of Japanese scenic prototype photos (which will be a lot of work to convert) I may have it mostly done by the move. It’s about time; I’d like to get back to modeling, or writing about modeling, rather than re-working old writings. Although this has given me the opportunity to clean up some of the older stuff, and re-do a number of photographs that were badly lit or otherwise not up to my current expectations (it’s amazing what you can do with photo software when working from RAW source files).

Other website changes:
- Updated the Japan Freight Cars page with info on the HoKi 10000 and a related series of coal cars.
- Updated my Reservations page (my Bus sets are in stock and awaiting shipment, and the Greenmax Tokyu 6000 originally expected in September has been formally rescheduled for October).