Railroading in Japan: it isn’t all Shinkansen

The first thing that comes to mind when most westerners think about railroads in Japan is the image of the “bullet train”, a sleek, electric train, blasting along a fenced and elevated track at speeds approaching 200 mph (over 300 kph). That’s certainly an important part of Japanese railroading, but it’s arguably not the most important part, at least not for the people who depend on trains for daily travel.

Bullet trains, or Shinkansen, provide high-speed intercity travel over dedicated track, built to “standard gauge”, 4’ 8 1/2” (1,435 mm) between the rails. Shinkansen are a relatively recent development, first introduced in 1964. But railroading came to Japan in the late 1800’s, immediately following the restoration of the Imperial government, replacing the isolationist Shogunate government. Although the reasons are unclear, a narrow track gauge of 3’ 6” (1,067 mm), known as “Cape gauge”, was used, and this was maintained for most later railroads. This was a gauge popular in Commonwealth countries in the late 1800‘s, and was likely introduced to Japan by British consultants who built their first commercial railroad. By far the majority of track in Japan is built to this gauge.

Freight trains make up a small part of modern Japanese railroading. In a country that is mostly coastline, bulky freight is easily transported by ship. And, as in most industrialized nations, less-than-carload freight has been taken over by trucks. Most twenty-first century Japanese freight traffic consists of containerized cargo and tanker trains. A large part of the containerized cargo uses smaller containers intended for domestic use, rather than the 20-foot and 40-foot containers common in international shipping. This is due in part to clearance issues, although the large sizes can be found on the rail in some places.

Other forms of rail exist, both heavy-rail subways and light rail tram lines, not to mention monorails and maglev trains. And some of these trains use standard gauge, rather than narrow gauge. But most trains in Japan are passenger trains, running on narrow-gauge track, at speeds that top out around 120-130 kph (75-81 mph).

These passenger trains are operated by a collection of companies, several formed from the the privatization of Japanese National Rail (JNR), known collectively as the Japan Rail (JR) group, as well as other private railroad companies. Many of these lines interconnect and services from one line run through on track belonging to others. This is even true of subways, which are used by some suburban lines to access city centers.

Most urban and long-distance trains in Japan use electrical propulsion, typically from overhead “catenary” wiring. Much of this is 1,500 volt direct-current (DC) power, unlike other countries where distance makes alternating-current (AC) and higher voltages (up to 25,000 volts) more popular. Japan does have high-voltage AC-powered trains as well (for example, the Shinkansen systems use 25,000 volt AC), and diesel passenger trains still serve low-volume or outlying areas.

Non-Shinkansen passenger trains are subdivided into several categories. Equipment used for these duties may be identical (e.g., some trains operate as locals during off-peak times, and as rapids during peak hours), or it may be specialized (e.g., the equipment used for the Narita Express, a limited express, is dedicated to that duty).

Seating is generally not reserved, unless otherwise noted. However some trains have “green cars” (first class cars marked with a green clover symbol) that have reserved seating for an additional fee. According to JR, there is also ordinary (“coach class” per JR) reserved seating on some long-distance trains.

Local (JR uses futsu, other names include: kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha): Trains that stop at every station are called “Local” trains. Some trains act as local trains in outlying areas, but skip stations as they near the city center.

Rapid (kaisoku): Trains that stop at a limited number of stations, but charge the same fare as a local train are called “Rapid” trains.

Express (kyūkō): Express trains stop at fewer stations that Rapid trains, and JR charges an “express fee” in addition to the base fare. Some other railroads do not.

Limited Express (JR uses Tokkyū, short for Tokubetsu Kyūkō, but other names include: Kaitoku, Kaisoku Tokkyū, Tsūkin Tokkyū, Chokutsū Tokkyū, Kukan Tokkyū, or Juntokkyū): Limited express trains only stop at major stations, and JR charges an “express fee” in addition to the base fare (some other railroads do not). Limited express trains may be all-reserved seating, or a mix of reserved and non-reserved.

Home Liner trains are a type of commuter express, using express or limited express equipment.

Finally, some train equipment is divided into Commuter and Suburban types. This distinction typically reflects different configurations, with commuter trains operating closer to city centers, and being equipped with limited seating, and lots of room for standing passengers, while suburban trains travel longer distances (but still service commuters and others going to/from the city), and are equipped with more seating, and conveniences such as toilets.