Japan Rail Freight and Freight Trains of Japan

Freight is a relatively small aspect of Japanese railroading. Although it continues to exist and move substantial tonnage, the volume of traffic is much diminished from fifty years ago. In 1960, Japan National Rail (JNR) moved 53 billion ton-km. By 1991 the volume was half that, even with increased in containerized freight, and in 2011 it stands at 20.4 billion ton-km.

In 1987, when JNR was broken up into separate operating companies, with the intent to fully privatize them, all of JNR’s freight was consolidated into one unit, Japan Freight Railway Company (日本貨物鉄道株式会社, Nihon Kamotsu Tetsudō Kabushiki-gaisha, more commonly known as JR Freight (JR貨物, Jeiāru Kamotsu) or JRF. JRF owned little track of its own, mostly operating on trackage rights over rails owned by the passenger-oriented units (in Japanese railroading, this is called “Type II” operation). There are other freight-carrying railways, mostly port and industrial lines feeding into the JR network.

Japan experienced the same loss of rail freight to other modes (truck, air freight, and ships) as did other industrialized countries, exacerbated by the fact that the industrial parts of Japan are almost entirely coastal, and readily served by ships. Further, Japanese rail lines were built to narrow-gauge standards and could not easily be updated to handle heavier trains to compete with other shipping modes. And Japanese lines were full of scheduled passenger trains, which made increasing the number or size of freight trains problematic, even if they had been able to capture more traffic.

Increased competition from trucking, coupled with some mis-steps by JNR in the 1960’s as they began to introduce domestic container service largely eliminated the less-than-carload freight business by making it unprofitable for the express companies and uncompetitive for other shippers. As more and more freight shifted to roadways or containers, freight classification yards became underutilized. In 1970, only 48% of freight traffic required the use of marshaling yards. As JNR’s financial situation worsened these began to be closed. In 1984 JNR closed all remaining freight marshaling yards (or so says the JRTR article cited below, although there seem to be a number of freight yards still in use), ending the need for all but a small amount of non-unit freight trains.

This did not end all non-unit freight, as some smaller or special-purpose yards remained, and cars could be taken directly from source to destination. In fact, according to the Japanese Wikipedia page, in recent years government policy has favored use of rail for freight due to its lesser environmental impact compared to trucking, and as a result traffic has begun to rebound. This likely means more container freight to eliminate long-distance trucking.

Today (2012), JRF operates 45.1 km of its own track, and operates as a Type II company over 8,267.7 km of the 12,800 km JR network (numbers per Wikipedia; JRF’s website says 8,337.5 km total). With nearly 7,000 employees, over 700 locomotives and 8,500 owned freight cars (plus another 2,500 private-owner cars) it operates 581 trains per day out of 253 stations including 140 freight terminals.

Compare this with U.S. railroad CSX, which in 2010 carried ~320 billion ton-km (converted from U.S. ton-miles) over a 34,100 km network using 27,000 employees, 4,000 locomotives and 84,000 freight cars.

But JRF is still a nationwide freight railroad, and not a small one. JRF has also invested heavily in modernizing its locomotive fleet and the fleet of container flat cars, with its most modern equipment capable of operating at 110 kph to mix with passenger trains.

Trains today are largely unit trains, such as container-on-flatcar (COFC) or oil-tanker trains, but mixed-freight trains continue to operate (many cars in these are COFC, probably moving cars between private industry sidings and the large container yards). Other trains operate as captive trains between two locations for a specific company, such as the 130 kph M250 Freight EMU container express operated between Tōkyō Freight Terminal and Ajikawaguchi Station in Osaka for logistics company Sagawa Express, or the Toyota Longpass Express container train operated to carry automobile parts from scattered suppliers to Toyota’s Kanto Auto Works plant in Iwate.

As my modeling interest is centered on the railroads of Tōkyō, the rest of this section focuses on a narrow slice of the overall JRF operation.

Additional reference

Transition of Railway Freight Transport in a Competitive Market (PDF), Kiyoshi Okada, JRTR vol. 5, July 1995.

CSX Quarterly Financial Statement, first quarter 2010.