E231 Commuter Train: JR East’s Flagship

Commuter trains, and in particular urban commuter trains, are the workhorse of the Japanese narrow-gauge passenger lines. While there are plenty of suburban and regional passenger trains, the ones that move the most people, over 90,000 passengers per hour at peak time on some lines, are the urban commuters. These are heavy-rail electric multiple-unit trains, typically of 10 to 15 cars in length, running on headways of only a few minutes during rush hour, often sharing their tracks with suburban and regional trains, and in some cases freight. Typical speeds are low, often well under 100 kph (62 mph), with frequent stops, so power and efficient use of power, rather than raw speed, is most important.

Old and New: Japan’s Joyful Trains

One of the defining characteristics of Japanese Trains, and of Japan in general, is a mania for newness. When Japan National Railways was broken up, one of the first actions of the newly-formed Japan Rail East was to begin planning a new model of commuter/suburban train with a design lifespan of just 15 years, quite short for an electric train. The reason was to lower construction and operations costs, compared with the existing trains that were due for replacement and very labor-intensive to operate and maintain. But it also had a PR dimension, in that JRE needed to shake off the public perception that JNR had as being out-of-touch with its passengers, and a new fleet of trains without the two or three decades of wear their then-current trains had was a good way to do that, by catering to the perception that “new” equated to “improved”. That effort was successful, and while most of that first generation of “15 year” trains (the 209 Series) are still in service, they’re gradually being replaced by the new generation of E231/E233/E531 commuter and suburban trains which form the bulk of my collection (and which, to be fair, do represent a substantial improvement over the 1960’s technology JNR had been using, in both comfort and economy).