Thursday, May 30, 2024

Japanese Railfreight

By Oliver Mayer and Anthony Robins

1. Background:

Japan – the country of railways. It is well known that the railways have a very strong position in the passenger transportation market, but there have only been very few reports about railfreight in the Bullet-In. The reason for this is that the railways have a very low share of the freight transportation market in Japan, currently just approximately 4.5% (26.300 ton-kms or just 1% in pure tonnage). On the other hand, ships carry 44.5% and lorries 51% of all goods carried, measured in ton-kilometers. The share of the railways grows as the length of the journey grows as well. Over 1000 kilometers, the railway-share grows steeply and railways have no less than 47% of the market between Tokyo and Hokkaido.

The freight transportation market in Japan is quite different to these markets in other countries of the world. Because nearly all large Japanese cities lie on the coast (Kyoto is one of the few exceptions) as well as most of the industry, coastal shipping has always played a very important role. In historic times, ships were the only mode to transport freight, because the roads were not good enough for horse-drawn vehicles. When railway development started, it became important soon, especially for serving areas away from canals and harbours and for urgent goods. However, ships, being slower but cheaper, remained important. After the war, road freight became stronger, and so the share of the railways dropped from about 50% to 30% in the 1960s. The share of the lorries rose by about the same speed, while coastal shipping has always carried between 40 and 50% of all freight.

When looking at the structure of railfreight, then there are three dominant products: petroleum products, non-ferrous metals and minerals, and cement. These three products together account for 70% of all railfreight transported and market share is as high as more than 80% in the case of oil transportation from the coast to inland areas. Paper, machinery, chemicals and coal have about 5% each, and many other goods together have the remaining 10%. As coal, petroleum products, cement and metal are also the main goods transported by ships, it is clear that the railway faces stiff competition from there. For example, the railways are transporting only 10% of all coal in Japan, while in Europe coal is mainly transported by rail. This is largely due to the decline in domestic coal production and its replacement with imports. Lines such as Hokkaido’s Muroran Line have therefore seen a marked loss of traffic.

The railfreight market is basically divided into three parts: First, there is JR Freight, the former freight division of JNR. JR itself owns very few railway lines. It mainly uses the tracks of the six passenger railways. Presently, use is on favorable terms, but this situation may change. Second, there are 13 coastal railways, all of them built in the 1960s and 1970s to develop harbours and industrial areas. Third, there are 16 private railways (most of them with passengers as their main traffic) with some freight workings.

2. Operational Aspects:

JR Freight operates 895 locomotives, based at 17 locations. Of these, 679 are needed for regular duties. Some are restricted to a limited sphere of operations, as in the case of the eight Hiroshima based EF67s which work exclusively on the Sanyo Main Line assisting heavy freight trains between Hiroshima and Saijo(u), 32 kilometers to the east. Longer operations, but again restricted to one route, are those of the DF200s based at Washibetsu in Hokkaido and operating between Goryo(u)kaku (near Hakodate) and Sapporo via there. Others, such as the dual voltage fleet of EF81s have a wider sphere of operations and these will be looked at in detail later.

While privatization may have created a freight company separate from the six regional passenger companies, that does not mean that their operations have by any means been completely separated. For example it is the fifteen DD51s of JR East at Takasaki which haul trains to Nippon Cement via the Hachiko(u) Line between Hachioji and Takasaki, rather than JR Freight locos. Similarly, JR Freight DD51s provide motive power for remaining loco hauled trains in Kyushu.

A further example is the Moji based JR Freight EF81 which hauls the westbound ‘Sakura’ sleeper (Tokyo to Nagasaki and Sasebo) for the eight minutes through the tunnel under the Kanmon Straits between Honshu and Kyushu. It takes over from a Shimonoseki based EF66 of JR West which has hauled the train throughout from Tokyo and hands over to an Oita based ED76 of JR Kyushu which continues to Nagasaki. On the other hand, it is an Oita based EF81 of JR Kyushu which handles the tunnel section for the Tokyo bound ‘Sakura’.

Problems and Solutions:
Rail’s low share of the freight market was shown in the first part of this feature. This contrasts with 1955 when JNR transported 152 million tons a year, and that increased to 193 million tons in 1970. From then, railfreight has fallen sharply to only 52 million tons in 1995. Between 1955 and 1988 the number of freight stations was cut from 2624 to 368; and the wagon fleet was reduced from 156,000 to 18,000.

Obviously, a positive future for JR Freight demands changes. After looking at the main problems and suggested solutions, a couple of specific innovations will be focused on. JR Freight’s own ‘Freight 21’ management plan has identified the main problems as costs, quality and sales strategy. Aspects of productivity are positive compared with competing road freight. Both face load restrictions, but a train may average 650 tons as opposed to a maximum 10 tons for a truck and a train driver can transport an average 2.1 million tons per year as opposed to 240.000 tons for a truck driver. However, with Japan still generally using age-related pay scales, JR Freight’s above average age profile (mean = 44.1 years) means that personnel costs are high. Although nominally down to 9.200 from the 12.000 transferred from JNR on privatization and way down from the 100.000 concerned with freight in 1964, most of the reduction is the result of transfer to related companies. Still, at 40% of costs, they are far improved from the worst JNR period (as high as 133%), not much above overall JR personnel costs (33%), and better than almost anywhere except US freight operations. Quality problems are largely related to a change from heavy freight to light value-added products, with greater pressure for rapid delivery. Whereas rail’s share is high in bulk commodities such as chemicals and oil, the share in manufactured goods is small. This is blamed on the speed of freight trains, which have to share congested routes with passenger trains, plus the time involved in transshipment for local delivery. Sales is the final area of perceived problems, where JR Freight is seen as not adapting to local requirements through still being too unified, as well as leaving marketing to handling agents rather than pursuing it aggressively.

Upcoming developments mean change is an urgent issue. While financing of new Shinkansen lines continues to be delayed by government economies, there seems little such hesitation in the ongoing development of the expressway (motorway) system, including the forthcoming second Tomei (Tokyo-Nagoya) Expressway. Aiding this is the low level of opposition to new roadbuilding compared with Europe. Coastal shipping’s strong position will be enhanced by the development of new high-speed cargo vessels and lower-cost airlines are poised to enter the cargo market as Japan’s air routes are slowly deregulated.

The response in the ‘freight 21’ plan (three stages 1994-2003)is a combination of a number of means. Costs will be reduced by a planned reduction in staff to 7.000 by 2003, largely through early retirement. Quality is being improved by investment in new more powerful locomotives and more innovative freight handling, with use of bimodal and piggyback operations, docking containers (two 12 feet containers attached) and use of specialised containers, such as the ‘car-rack’ system. The first and last of these developments will be looked at in more detail. A general move towards containers, including tanker containers rather than tanker wagons, sees the 36% of traffic handled in container form rising to 56% by 2003. Changes in the container network also aim to speed up services. As well as more determined marketing, JR Freight aims to follow other JR companies in the kind of diversification made possible since privatization. However, at an expected 10% by 2003, it will still be a long way behind the successful diversification of city based private railways.

The lengthy recession, plus the effects of the Hanshin earthquake, have made such developments even more essential. Several years of losses have made financial changes urgent. The currently favored plan is to distribute JR Freight’s shares among banks and trucking companies closely connected to JR Freight. The latter are both rivals and customers of JR Freight and for example, own nearly one in five of all containers.

Specific Developments:
Just as car traffic has been an important source of freight through the Channel Tunnel, its reinvigoration was seen as crucial in Japan. While JNR transported as much as 2.24 million tons of cars annually in the late 1960s and early 1970s using the ‘ku 5000’ type double-decker (Kato 8018 model), this dwindled at a time of frequent industrial action and freight rates raised to offset JNR’s deficit. The Laurel Prize winning ‘koki 71’ has been the answer. Operating to carry Toyota cars between Nagoya and Niigata, an ingenious design using racks enables road and rail use for easy transhipment. Two racks, each carry either five 1500cc cars (4.2 meters) or four 2500cc cars (4.7 meters). Several key problems are solved. Long sidings for loading are not needed, greater protection from damage is provided and most important of all, two 12 feet containers can be used to carry other freight on the return journey. Speed capability is 100kms/hr rather than the 75kms/hr of the earlier vehicles.

New locomotives are an important area of development. While JNR locomotives were often compromises for mixed traffic, the new JR Freight types do not face such constraints. Before these developments, the 3.900 kw output EF66, capable of pulling a 1300 tons train at up to 95 kms/hr was the best on offer. The EF200 class, currently numbering twenty, is the outcome of a requirement for a locomotive able to pull 32 container wagons (1600 tons) with a top speed of 120kms/hr. They seem to be particularly used with the newer and larger containers carried on ‘koki 100’ wagons. These are 2710mm (height), 9410mm (length) and 2500mm (width) and have a capacity of 11.2 or 11.75 tons.

The seven German (MTU) engined DF500s, with an output of 1250kw at 1800rpm, are a Bo-Bo-Bo design with each bolsterless axle driven individually for optimum acceleration. More DF500s are currently being delivered. Both designs, as well as the prototype ED500, EF500 and newest EF210, all have in common a more robust and powerful look than many JNR electric locomotives. As a footnote, the EF210 has been in service on Tokyo to Osaka container trains since November.

JR Freightwatching:
For watching shunting operations, the Shiohama freight yard in Kawasaki can be recommended. It is located very close to Keikyuu’s Kojima-Shinden station (terminus of the Keikyuu-Daishi-line), to be reached by a short ride from Keikyuu-Kawasaki. Kanagawa Rinkai Tetsudo (Coastal Railway) trains can also be seen here. Freight trains have their own routes in Tokyo, and are thus often not noticed by many people. A few trains run over the eastern part of the Yamanote-circle, but most do not go through central Tokyo, they take the Musashino-line instead. The Musashino-line is the outer circle-line around Tokyo, and runs partly underground. Except for the rush-hours, passenger trains run every 12 minutes, so leaving enough time for a freight train to pass between. This is very similar at the Nambu-line in Kawasaki. The Tokaido line south of Ofuna can also be recommended for watching freight trains. Closed freight yards can also be seen. Higashi-Yokohama (south of Yokohama station), Shin-Tsurumi (close to Shin-Kawasaki, Yokosuka- line) and Shiodome (close to Shimbashi) are a few examples in and around Tokyo.

The breadth of bulk commodity trains is narrowing. For example the final ED62 operation at the northern end of the Iida Line ceased in autumn 1996. However, Hachioji and the Hachiko Line northwards from there to Takasaki remains a good location for DD51s hauling cement trains. DD51s are also active on the scenic Mine Line (Yamaguchi Prefecture) hauling nine daily limestone trains. Double or even triple-headed EF64s operate tanker trains over the similarly scenic Chuo (West) Line to Minami-Matsumoto.

Other Operators:
Freight carried by the traditional private railways continues to decline, with Joshin in Gumma (September 94), Echigo Kotsu’s Nagaoka Line (March 95) and Seibu’s remaining flow (May 96) among recent abandonments. However, companies which continue to operate freight services include Kosaka Smelting in Akita (tankers), Kashima in Ibaraki (tankers) and Sangi in Mie (cement). In the first case, passenger services have ceased. In addition a major raison d’etre for one third-sector company, Tarumi in Gifu Prefecture, is cement. More widespread are the coastal railways mentioned in part one of this feature which were set up in the 1960s to serve newly developed industrial areas, from Kushiro in Hokkaido to Kurashiki in western Honshu. Their shareholders include JR Freight and local port authorities. Only two also operate passenger services and although their freight traffic is down from its peak, they fill a vital role in transhipment to JR lines. The Nagoya Rinkai (Coastal) Tetsudo saw traffic fall from 2.520.000 tons in 1975 to 1.430.000 tons in 1991. It has the largest fleet of any of the coastal railways, made up of typical 35 and 55 ton diesels, including former JNR DD13s. There are approximately twenty daily workings from Kasadera yard on the Tokaido Line, where JR Freight locomotives take over. Neighbouring Kinu-Ura Rinkai Tetsudo’s trains operate partly over JR metals (Taketoyo Line) to reach the Tokaido Line. Variety remains!