Thursday, May 30, 2024

Japan Railways at Age Ten

Japan Railways Privatization Ten Years on 1997 - A Trip Report / By Kenneth Lin

This trip report is intended to offer viewpoints from my dual perspectives as that of a professional transportation planner and as a travel agent as to how U.S. tourists and visitors might use and experience the Japanese railway system. In addition, I offer my comments and suggestions regarding various aspects of the railway system. The purpose of this trip report to provide some helpful feedback and ideas for promoting the use of the Japanese railway network by U.S. travelers to Japan.

My travels to Japan
Altogether, I have visited Japan six times for a total of approximately thirteen weeks. Disregarding the first trip, which was at the age of nine in 1969, subsequent trips have taken place in 1984 (one month), 1989 (two weeks), 1992 (two weeks), 1993 (two weeks) and July 1997 (11 days). Thus, collectively, these trips have provided me with insights as to Japan’s railway system before and after the formation of the JR Group of companies.

The Tenth Anniversary of JR Group of companies
Nowhere else, except perhaps in India, is the cultural identity of a country so closely identified with the network of passenger railways as in Japan. Indeed, without Japan’s comprehensive network of passenger rail lines would it even be possible for Japan’s concentrated urban development and population density to even exist. Railways are every bit as essential to Japan as irrigation canals and aqueducts are to California for its continued growth and development.

1997 marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Japan Railways Group of companies formed by the fragmenting of the former Japanese National Railways (JNR) into, among other entities, several operating companies. Where previously JNR provided passenger rail service throughout four islands– Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido– today this task is taken up by JR Kyushu, West Japan Railways, East Japan Railways, JR Shikoku and JR Hokkaido. A chief reason for this break up was to “privatise” and reorganise the massive debt and obligations which had accumulated under years of JNR operation. A second reason, however, was to foster a new, more customer-focused, and entrepreneurial spirit into the newly created group of railways. Of course, this would be initially staffed by ex-JNR employees at the time of privatisation.

So, ten years after privatisation, have the various JR operating railways become more customer-focused? And how has the creation of the JR group of railways affected U.S. travelers using JR trains? Have there been substantiative service improvements, or has much of the change been cosmetic?

What can today’s North American customer traveling to Japan expect?
A decade of improvements
Thinking back and comparing my 1997 trip to my 1984 trip, from an overall customer service point of view, I would say that the improvements in the JR group of railways have been dramatic. Even more remarkable is that these dramatic improvements have been achieved against a solid base of service which already existed prior to 1987.

The Japan Railways group of operating companies have built upon its traditional base and strengths including an enviable safety operating record, consistently courteous employees, and a well deserved reputation for fastidious on-time train performance. To varying degrees, the new JR entities have injected imaginative new concepts into their respective railway operations. In 1984, passenger rolling stock, while still interesting, tended to be less imaginative and comfortable than today, with some older railcars bordering on spartan.

Railway stations were more functional then, with less attention paid to aesthetics and passenger amenities. I recall distinctly in 1984, that there was little difference between the comfort of Green Class (first class) and Ordinary (second class) railcar cabins, except for slightly wider seats and increased seat pitch. On-board service in the JNR era, while uniformly excellent, seemed less entrepreneurial than today.

Today, the JR fleet has been infused with a number of new and incredibly imaginative railcars and trainsets. Some of the most imaginative trains which I have seen during my travels to 116 countries operate over Japanese rails. Many train stations have been revitalised, brightened and present a more pleasing appearance to welcome travelers. Some of the refurbished and newly constructed stations are architecturally noteworthy, and JR era stations feature more customer amenities than before.

The past decade has seen a raising of the comfort standards for both Ordinary and Green Class on the newest railcars via the introduction of more comfortable seats, improved interior ergonomics, and higher quality interior fittings. Today there is a distinct difference between the two classes. Green Class passengers enjoy greater seat pitch, greater variety of interior configurations (including private compartments), more comfortable seat designs and styling, improved interior cabin ambience, and on some trains, complimentary at-seat beverage service from hostesses. Certain trains such as the Tsubame, Tsubasa, Super View Odoriko, etc. offer additional amenities in Green Class such as at-seat music, while other trains such as the Super Raicho, West JR Series 100 Shinkansen, and Super Hitachi offer individual TV screens for Green Class customers. These amenities were unknown in the JNR days.

My impression is that the sum of these improvements have raised the quality and value of the railway product relative to the ticket price paid. Discounting fluctuations in the Dollar to Yen exchange rates (which are beyond the control of JR), for US travelers, this translates into improved service and better value for money. From a travel agent’s point of view, this makes the Japanese trains an easier service to sell.

Affordable Japan
In my conversations with clients (as a travel agent) and in casual conversations with friends, acquaintances and colleagues, there emerges one reoccurring perception about travel in Japan– that it is viewed by almost everyone as being very expensive! Mention Japan and visions of $5.00 cups of coffee, $60.00 melons, $300.00 per night hotel rooms and the like, instantly spring to mind.

The August 25, 1997 issue of Travel Weekly Magazine (a travel agent industry publication) even reported on this matter with an article (enclosed) entitled “An Affordable Vacation in Japan? It can be done… Really!”

The perception that Japan is expensive is even reinforced by those who have travelled to Japan on business. This is understandable since such an expense-account paid trip offers a distorted (and inflated) view of affordable travel in Japan. The typical U.S. business traveler gamely paying expense account prices at four and five star hotel rates, and eating at restaurants designed for the expense account customer, would naturally just assume that tourist travel must be similarly expensive.

When I have attempted to explain to even worldly travelers that travel in Japan need not be expensive if they followed a few simple guidelines, and that Japanese prices can be comparable to New York City prices, the reaction is one of disbelief. Essentially, there are four main categories of expenses when travelling as a tourist. They are:

  • Transportation.
  • Lodging.
  • Food.
  • Entertainment.

An important strategy for touring in Japan comfortably and affordably is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. Priced at 37,800 yen, a 7 day Green Class Japan Rail Pass is priced at the equivalent of only one roundtrip on the Hikari Shinkansen service in Green Class between Tokyo and Osaka (36,780 yen). Thus, for the price of that single roundtrip, a tourist could enjoy the many splendid JR trains and the cities they serve throughout four islands– and take seven days to do so. Essentially, a Japan Rail Pass opens a door to affordable travel, and lays down a steel magic carpet at their feet, with virtual flexibility to go as they please! This is solid value.

Comparable bargains are available for travelers purchasing Ordinary Class Japan Rail Passes (28,300 yen) versus Ordinary Class roundtrip Tokyo to Osaka Shinkansen tickets (27,500 yen).

Thus, with intercity travel expenses predetermined and already budgeted, travelers to Japan can then focus on making the remaining categories of trip expenses– food, lodging, entertainment– affordable. Here again, the Japan Rail Pass can help.

Simply using the pass exposes the travelers to the world of trains, their train stations and the Japanese way of life. Just as in India, railways in Japan are a microcosm reflective of the greater society they serve. Within this world of trains and stations, tasty and affordable food, varied shopping, entertainment (i.e. bars, lounges) and a range of lodging can be found.

For tourists unfamiliar with the Japanese language and signs, at all but the smallest railway halts, bi-lingual signs (in English) are posted consistently and thoughtfully. I venture to say that English directional signposting is more consistent in JR stations and Japanese subway stations than throughout New York City’s subway stations where English is the primary language.

As for finding affordable and tasty food, merely window shopping at train station restaurants will reveal a world of western and Japanese food catering to all budgets. Unlike US restaurants, many Japanese restaurants feature elaborate window displays of plastic replicas of the meals served, with prices helpfully added. Daily set meals are often available, and they offer extra value. If you can’t make yourself understood to your server, you can always point to what you want to eat. For those who are rushed, or for the budget traveler, bowls of steaming noodles are ubiquitous at Japanese train stations for 300-500 yen (~$2.70-$4.50).

JR Railways has expanded this world of choice by actively developing new retail and dining opportunities within the larger train stations.

To be certain, train stations in major Japanese cities were often centers of activity during JNR days and contained a variety of shops and restaurants. However, infused by the new JR entrepreneurial spirit, the traditional role of the train station in Japanese cities has been further reinforced and anchored by additional complimentary urban development. Surplus railway real estate, such as unused freight rail yards and sheds, have been productively redeveloped into new hotels, department stores, shopping malls and/or office complexes. Typically these developments are directly connected to stations, much as how Grand Central Terminal in New York is the locus of commercial development.

Strategies for using the Japan Rail Pass
Given the inherent flexibility of the Japan Rail Pass which allows customers to come and go as they please, the rail pass can help keep travel costs down by supporting the following money saving travel strategies:

  • Using the “base city” concept to tour surrounding areas. Using this concept, tourists can base themselves in a particular city for several days (and often benefiting from a longer stay or package rates at hotels) and make a series of “out and back trips” to the surrounding cities or areas.
  • The cheaper city strategy. Japan Rail Passes allow visitors to stay in smaller cities with cheaper hotels or accommodations and allow them to commute to more expensive cities for sightseeing. For instance, visitors could stay in cities such as Takasaki and “commute” into Tokyo via the Joetsu Shinkansen.
  • The overnight train strategy. By using overnight trains to save time traveling to the next city, day time travel is minimised. Thus, tourists can make more efficient use of their time, reducing the overall number of days spent in Japan, or enabling them to make better use of limited vacation time.
  • The circle tour. As the name suggests, tourists can travel around Japan in a circular fashion by train, visiting for instance Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Nagano, and back to Tokyo– eliminating the need for time consuming backtracking.

Marketing the Japan Rail Pass
Compared to the cost and the effort required to purchase individual train tickets, Japan Rail Passes offer many advantages. When marketing the JR pass within North America, it could be worth reminding potential customers about their benefits, including:

  • They are affordably priced in a country widely perceived by US travelers as being expensive. As mentioned before, a one week Green Class pass is about as expensive as a Green Class roundtrip via Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka.
  • The pass provides flexibility. Itineraries may be changed on a whim by the traveler for whatever reason. See something interesting en route? Get off and explore. Plans change? No problem; there’s no need to revalidate tickets or pay additional limited express charges.
  • Many travelers to Japan have already traveled overseas, such as to Europe. Thus they are familiar with how to use European rail passes and trains, making it is easier to market rail travel and travel via rail pass in Japan. Given the dearth of intercity trains in the United States outside of the northeast corridor (Boston to Washington DC), the habit of riding trains in the US is not ingrained and many American travelers are unfamiliar with how to ride trains.
  • The Japan Rail Pass is a “flash pass” which means that the pass itself is simply presented (or “flashed”) at the conductor or ticket barrier clerk for travel. Unlike Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass (sold to overseas visitors only) or VIA Rail Canada’s rail pass, the JR Pass does not require ticket coupons to be obtained first from a ticket window. A flash type pass saves time and hassle, especially when language barriers may intercede.
  • Using the Japan Rail Pass eliminates the complexity associated with understanding the variety of fare structures which might be applicable for different trains, including base fares, seasonal surcharges, limited express charges, seat reservation fees, etc. Again, many US tourists would be unfamiliar and confused by these complicated charges.
  • By purchasing a JR Pass, the traveler knows beforehand how much his rail travel will cost, making trip budgeting easier and reassuring the cost-sensitive traveler that intercity transport expenses can be controlled.
  • The Japan Rail Pass entitles the traveler to free seat reservations. The ability to reserve a specific seat in advance can be particularly reassuring for those who like to structure their trips in advance, while it is helpful for all travelers during peak periods or those traveling on popular trains.

Suggestions for improving the Japan Rail Pass
While I have used a Japan Rail Pass on each trip to Japan (except my first trip at age nine), I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to refine an already good product.

  • Sell the pass (not the voucher) to the customer. Currently, when someone purchases a JR pass the customer receives a voucher in the United States, which in turn is exchanged at designated stations in Japan for the actual pass. The pass is validated and stamped with dates of travel when the voucher is exchanged.
  • Why not provide the pass itself (instead of the voucher) to the customer at the time of purchase? This is the approach used on a number of European rail passes. This way, the pass could be validated at any rail station with either a ticket window or a seat reservation office, saving an intermediate step. For tired, jet-lagged U.S. travellers arriving at gateway airports in Japan (i.e. Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, Nagoya, etc.) after an overnight flight this is one less thing to worry about.
  • Reduce the pass size to fit into wallets or passport holders. The current large pass size is difficult to store in wallets, moneybelts or in passport holders, and I always worry about losing this odd sized pass among my travel belongings. A credit card sized pass, or slightly larger, would better fit into wallets. A challenge with shrinking the pass would be to present the same Conditions of Use information bi-lingually on a smaller sized pass. Perhaps that information could be presented within an accompanying mini-leaflet.
  • Make the JR pass faregate-readable. If a smaller pass were introduced, then by adding a magnetic stripe, Japan Rail Passes could be directly used to open the automatic faregates which have been installed at busier stations in recent years. This would eliminate the need to show the pass to the ticket clerk.

Planning the trip
The JNTO Timetable
The summary timetable of major train routes published by the Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) is a good starting point for obtaining rail schedules and basic train travel information. This timetable is issued free of charge and available from JNTO in the United States. There are few Japanese train timetables printed in English and the JNTO timetable is one of them. The British imported Thomas Cook’s Overseas Timetable is another popular English language timetable, but for a trip to Japan it is rather bulky (since it lists rail services around the world as well) and it is expensive, costing approximately $24.00 plus postage.

The JNTO timetable lists the schedules for principal train services, along with some helpful hints on rail travel. Unfortunately, in the March 1997 edition of the JNTO timetable, there were a few instances where the map route index number and corresponding schedule reference numbers did not match up, which is a source of confusion.

While the Thomas Cook’s Overseas Timetable helpfully lists overnight trains, including those with sleeping cars, for some unknown reason the JNTO timetable has never listed nor publicised those trains. I have always thought this was particularly odd, since many independent rail travelers to Japan, accustomed to using overnight European trains would enjoy similar comforts and time savings in Japan.

Using overnight trains and sleeping cars are part of the strategy for affordable independent travel within Japan. While West Japan Railway’s “Legato” and other overnight seated services can be enjoyed free of extra charge with a JR Pass, the B-type sleepers and the similarly priced Solo Compartments are relatively good value when hotel cost savings and time savings are simultaneously considered. While B-type sleepers (~US $85.00 Tokyo to Hakata) are priced at about the same price as a typical Japanese business hotel in Hakata (~US $85.00), the ability to save several hours of travel time (even by the fast Shinkansen trains) and arrive in a new city in the morning is an advantage of sleeper travel in Japan.

Most travelers to Japan are fairly content to ply the main train routes, such as the Shinkansen lines and various conventional lines to popular destinations as Sapporo, Nikko, Nara, Nagasaki and the like. For lesser known rural train services, the JNTO timetable may list only the limited express trains operating on that line, while in reality there may be more frequent service provided by slightly slower regional trains on that route. The JNTO timetable gives the impression that those trains listed are the only trains available on that route. Of course, while it would be physically impossible to list all trains on a particular branch line without substantially increasing the number of pages in their timetable, perhaps a footnote could mention that other trains are available on that route. To aid the traveler, perhaps the corresponding page numbers in the monthly JR system timetable could be provided.

JR system timetable
Those travelers who make an effort to digest the JR system timetable (published monthly in Japanese) are rewarded with a cornucopia of information about the railway system, including the schedules of the private railway operators and third sector railways. I have used and collected railway timetables from around the world, and I know of no other railway timetable which contains such a vast range of information, including:

  • Monthly news magazine features and featured destinations.
  • Fare specials.
  • Color diagrams and maps of key stations.
  • City maps depicting major train stations within the context of the neighborhood they serve.
  • Detailed route maps depicting not only JR trains, but those of private railways, buses, ferries, and even competing air routes!
  • Schematic route maps depicting Shinkansen services, limited express trains and sleeper trains.
  • Train schedules for all JR lines, as well as many private railways.
  • Platform and track numbers at major train stations for principal trains.
  • Schematic train composition diagrams and car interior seating plans and sleeping car floorplans.

A particularly impressive aspect is that a JR System Timetable is even published at all. It is quite easy to imagine that with the balkanisation of the former JNR into several railways, no comprehensive timetable might be published, since there might not be a coordinating entity to coordinate and publish such a timetable. A similar concern existed in Britain during their recent railway privatisation; British consumer groups worried that a national railway timetable listing all trains might not be published as each railway might not want to divulge train information which could benefit its competitors. If there was no System Timetable containing the schedules for each of the JR railways, then customers would have to collect several timetables– one for each JR railway– a tiresome and daunting effort.

While it may be impractical to translate the system timetable into English due to limited, specialised demand, the monthly Japan Railways System Timetable could take a cue from other European railways (such as in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.) by publishing an English language “frontpiece.” The translated frontpiece could contain helpful information to make the JR System Timetable more decipherable to overseas visitors, including:

  • Translations of timetable reference marks and symbols.
  • Translations of how to use the timetable.
  • Provision of helpful train travel tips.
  • A railway map with cities translated in English, or bi-lingual (Japanese/English) map names for major cities.

Since the JR System Timetables are stocked in Green Class magazine racks on major trains, such as the Shinkansen, by including the above frontpiece, the System Timetable would become more useful to overseas visitors.

Some of the most helpful features of the monthly System Timetable should also be included into JNTO’s summary timetable to make it even more useful. Such information to be added to JNTO timetable could include:

  • Interior station diagrams and maps of key stations,
  • Track assignments at major train stations for principal trains.
  • Train composition diagrams and car interior seating charts and sleeping car floorplans.

East Japan Railways Web Site
One of the powerful aspects of the Internet is that information which was once difficult to come by can be readily accessed from any computer connected to the World Wide Web. A number of railways worldwide have recently introduced web sites, including:

The Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada sites allow customers to look up train schedules, see photos of different types of trains, obtain actual fare information (not just sample fare information), and book reservations directly on line. Tickets may be issued by mail or picked up at stations.

Thus, should a traveler residing in Topeka, Kansas wish to peruse Amtrak, VIA Rail or even Swiss train schedules at say, 3:00 am, he can readily access various web sites to provide that information. Compare this to the pre-Internet days when those timetables physically had to be obtained (generally by mail, with many days delay)– if they could even be found. Even by telephone the process is cumbersome; perhaps several telephone calls might be required during office hours to US sales agents for overseas railways such as Britrail Travel in New York City.

The East Japan Railways web site provides some useful information for those planning a trip to Japan, including a gallery of photographs depicting various types of East JR trains. The plethora of new and imaginative rolling stock appears to have been a result of the new customer focus in the ten years of JR, and depicting them on the web site helps sell travelers on the merits of traveling Japan by train.

The next step would be for either this web site, or another web site, to offer:

  • On line train schedules in Japanese and English. Perhaps the primary routes could be offered in English to save the expense of translation for each train route.
  • A train trip planner. Unlike the above, which simply displays the schedule of a specific route, a trip planner allows the traveler to specify the origin and destination, with various route options automatically calculated and offered to the traveler. This saves the traveler considerable effort in juggling several timetable pages to compose a through trip. Using Railtrack’s (UK rail) trip planner as an example, a traveler seeking to travel between London and Exeter would be offered at least two route options (via Salisbury or via Reading) on two different railways.
  • On line booking of reserved seats for those trains which require or accept seat reservations (e.g. Shinkansen, limited express trains, Narita Express, sleeping cars, etc.). On line booking would be particularly helpful for North American travelers, since hard to get reservations for travel during peak periods could be obtained before departing the country. Such a service would be very useful during major events such as the planned 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when Shinkansen seat reservations will be in great demand.
  • On line tariff information, so that ticket prices, Japan Rail Pass prices, and sleeping car supplements can be determined from home.
  • Interactive train composition and car diagram information. This information could be tied to the seat reservation chart so that travelers could select specific seats by number, rather than just by type (i.e. window or aisle seat, smoking or non-smoking seat, etc.).

Likely, the easiest way to develop such a web site would be to develop the site primarily for the domestic Japanese market, while simultaneously developing an English language component to the site. To help defray the operating and maintenance costs of such a web site, advertising space (banner ads, text ads, pop-up ads) etc. could be judiciously used. Such ad space might appeal to hotels, travel agencies, sightseeing destinations and similar enterprises.

Aspects of Japan Railways service
Airport access
Currently the topic of considerable debate within the New York City region, several Japanese gateway international airports feature convenient railway access, including Narita Airport (served by two competing railways), Haneda Airport (currently served by monorail only), Kansai Airport (also served by two competing railways), Fukouka Airport (via city subway) and Shin-Chitose Airport. Rail access to/from each of these airports offers a quick, convenient, and comparatively affordable way of reaching the city center. Narita and Kansai Airports both benefit from two competing railways which serve different city center destinations, offer different fares and provide different travel times.

The time sensitive and the budget sensitive travelers can select from a variety of trains to/from the city center which best meets their requirements.

Train punctuality
Consistent before and after the “privatisation” of JNR into JR has been the Japanese obsession for operating trains on-time and to the second. JR’s time keeping performance is impressive. A few years ago, East Japan Railways recorded an average delay for all of their high speed Shinkansen scheduled trains at approximately 12 seconds!

By contrast, many railroads or transit operators in the United States consider a train to be on-time if it arrives at its terminal (not necessarily intermediate stations!) within 5 minutes of its scheduled arrival time. Amtrak uses a sliding scale to measure on-time performance, and their concept of on-time performance corresponds to the distance traveled. Thus a Los Angeles to Chicago Amtrak train could arrive Chicago one hour late and still be considered “on-time” according to Amtrak. In Japan, on-time means precisely that– on-time, to the second.

The on-time operation of trains in Japan has been a consistent hallmark during each of my trips there. After five rail-oriented trips to Japan involving numerous train trips (at least 400+ train trips), I am hardpressed to recall more than ten trains which suffered from delays surpassing 5 minutes– and no more than a handful which were delayed greater than 15 minutes! In my opinion, Japanese trains are the most punctual in the world, consistently surpassing other well run railways in Germany, Switzerland and France.

A common concern in many countries is that perhaps privatisation might cause a lowering of timekeeping standards as the railway organisational culture becomes slack and more tolerant of operational delays. In the ten years of JR, cause for such worries have not materialised in Japan.

Knowing that trains in Japan are almost always on-time actually makes for a very relaxing trip, since very tight train connections can be made. Though probably not recommended for the novice traveler to Japan, during the July 1997 trip I managed to make several train connections with only 1-2 minutes scheduled between trains! With such tight connecting times, the main constraint becomes the amount of time it takes to walk (or run) from one platform to another.

While I experienced zero train delays on some trips, this year there were two instances where delays were noted:

  • A 40 minute delay departing Hakata during the evening of 8-9 July 1997 from Kyushu to Shin-Osaka on the overnight sleeper train. This train was delayed due to exceptionally heavy rains in Kyushu that night which also delayed a number of other trains that evening as well as other trains the following day.
  • Several trains (local and long distance) appeared to be consistently delayed between Sapporo and Chitose-Minami on Friday, July 11, 1997. The ripple effect of this multiple delay was particularly severe on those trains serving Shin Chitose International Airport, due to capacity limitations arising from the single track tunnel serving the airport. The cause of these delays were unknown, but may have been the result of main line trackwork observed.

In addition, it appears that train delays are expected and anticipated in the schedule of at least two afternoon Narita Express trains leaving Narita International Airport, as they were both checked by signals on the single track section just west of the airport tunnel. Ironically, this single track section is set on a larger viaduct structure (which can accommodate multiple tracks) originally designed for Shinkansen service to Narita Airport.

JR Staff courtesy
Reflecting the culture of the country, during this trip I observed that the railway staff (i.e. ticket clerks, conductors, station barrier staff, restaurant car staff, car cleaners, and other visible public staff), were consistently courteous and polite.

Such was the consistently high level of politeness, that attention then focused on very subtle shades where a particular employee might be perceived as being slightly less polite than the others. During the July trip only two JR employees, both restaurant car employees (one on the Grand Hikari, the other on the Hokutosei) were ever so subtly perceived as being not as service oriented as the rest.

The overall high level of JR staff courtesy is in sharp contrast to variable levels of staff courtesy that a Japanese traveler to the United States might find on Amtrak trains, where it is possible to encounter employees ranging from extremely pleasant to downright belligerent within the same train!

For the North American tourist to Japan, particularly those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, customs and geography, helpful assistance can always be found by contacting a railway staff member.

Sleeping car services
As previously mentioned, sleeping cars are a convenient way to simultaneously travel and save time, while paying a ticket supplement comparable to business hotel rates.

Unfortunately, Japan Rail Pass holders must pay a proportionately higher rate for traveling by sleeper than in daytime trains, since pass holders must pay for both the sleeping car supplement as well as the limited express surcharge. I have always wondered why passholders must pay the limited express surcharge when booking sleepers since limited express surcharges are included in daytime train fares. Additionally, despite the higher price paid, Green Class pass holders are not offered any advantage (over Ordinary Class passholders) towards the purchase of higher category sleeping accommodations. This tariff policy is in contrast to European trains where first class rail pass holders can book first class sleeping compartments and second class rail pass holders can book second class sleeping compartments at proportionately the same rate.

JR sleeping cars, regardless of the type of accommodation booked, feature Japanese robes, slippers– although US travelers might notice the lack of wash cloths or towels in B-type sleepers. Since privatisation, it appears that the variety of sleeping car types and configurations have increased. During the JNR era, open berth B-type sleepers, arrayed in bays of four beds, represented the most economical and common category of sleeping accommodations.

Today, individual Solo compartments and two-person Duet compartments offer greater privacy, additional amenities (i.e. card key entry, radio, alarm clock), yet they are priced at the same tariff as the traditional open berth B-type sleeper. These compartments, in my opinion, represent better value for money than the traditional B-type beds. During my travels in 1992 and 1993, many of these Duets and Solo sleepers were fresh and new.

Alas, during the July 1997 trip, I noticed that some of the newer sleeping cars suffered from poor interior maintenance. A Duet compartment in which I traveled between Hakata and Okayama was disappointing. The interior was ragged and worn, in sharp contrast to the usual JR standards of maintenance whereby even the oldest railcars appear pristine. The Duet compartment carpet was heavily soiled, wall paper peeled from the compartment ceiling, cushions were worn, and the toilets at the end of the car has accumulated grime in corners, nooks and crannies.

Even the interior and maintenance of the flagship Hokutosei overnight trains between Ueno and Sapporo which shone brightly upon introduction in 1989 now appeared somewhat tired and in need of interior refurbishment. For instance, the upholstery in the Lobby Car was beginning to wear, while the overall color scheme and fittings appeared somewhat dated.

Alarmingly, it was my perception that sleeping car travel seemed to be less patronised than on prior trips– although I do not have specific ridership numbers to support this perception. The trains with the most overnight ridership appeared to be the various Hokutosei trains. I hope that this was a mis-impression on my part, as I wish to see a vital network of time saving, luxury sleeping car trains serve Japan well into the next century.

According to Mr. Takaki and Mr. Komoto of West Japan Railways, new electric multiple unit sleeping cars are currently under development. The use of electric multiple unit sleepers is unique to Japan; I know of no other railway in the world which utilises such rolling stock.

Rolling stock climate control
Of the five trips to Japan, the July 1997 trip was my second trip during the rainy season. A consistent problem which I encountered was the tepid air conditioning found in Green Class cars. Oddly enough, many Ordinary Class railcars on the same trains appeared to have sufficient air conditioning. There were three problems that were we noted with the rolling stock air conditioning:

  • Air conditioning was insufficient to dispel the heat within the railcar.
  • Air conditioning did not lower the interior humidity.
  • Air conditioning appeared to cycle on and off, resulting in cool periods followed by warming.

Among the trains noted with weak air conditioning were:

  • Narita Airport Express in Green Class.
  • Shinkansen E3 in Green Class.
  • JR Kyushu’s Sonic Nichirin.

Train station improvements
For customers, train stations serve as the “front door” to their railway experience, and upon completion of the journey, it serves as a lasting impression of their trip. Prior to privatisation many JNR stations were interesting places to visit for those interested in trains and railways, but it seemed the majority of the JNR era stations had a somewhat functional style and appearance.

Today, ten years after privatisation, several new stations have been constructed (in Kyoto, Kansai International Airport. Akita, Nagano– to name a few) and many others have been refurbished (Hakata, Osaka, Tokyo)– often to a remarkable transformation from their former appearance.

For example, the transformation of Hakata Station has been dramatic; whereas the station was previously lacking in ambience and style, today it features imaginative uses of station finishes and fixtures to create a modern image commensurate with a reborn Japan Railways system.

For U.S. travelers to Japan, larger stations are virtual cities within a city. Today, the larger stations feature hotels, a variety of retail shops, department stores, a range of restaurants, bars, kiosks, and other helpful conveniences such as banking machines and tourist information offices.

The most imaginative rolling stock in the world
Perhaps nowhere else is the creative spirit of the new JR Group of companies more evident than that exhibited by the wide variety of new rolling stock which is continuously being introduced. While there was some variety of rolling stock designs during the JNR period, there has been a virtual explosion of new, noteworthy vehicles and trainsets since privatisation. These imaginative new designs are aimed at aggressively enticing travelers to the rails.

It seems that almost monthly, some type of new rolling stock is being introduced. The new trains added within in the past decade appear to be grouped into the following market categories:

  • High speed services. The proliferation of new trains in this category include the different models of Shinkansen: West Japan Railway’s new series 500, East Japan Railway’s new E2 and E3 series, East JR’s MAX (all double deck) train, East JR’s series 400, and JR Tokai/West JR’s series 300 Nozomi trainset. After an absence of several years, the introduction of series 500 has enabled Japan to recapture the title of the world’s fastest scheduled train from the French TGV.
  • Resort trains or trains promoted for tourist markets. There are a number of noteworthy new trains which serve the tourist market, and which are intended to convey a feeling that one’s holiday has begun the moment a customer steps aboard a train. Such “resort trains” include: the Super View Odoriko, Boso View Express, Sonic Nichiron, Ocean Arrow, Yufin No Mori, Furano Express, Crystal Panoramic Express, Niseko Express– and the like. Many of these trains allow passengers seated in the front of the train to share the “engineer’s view” ahead, and some trains, such as the Super View Odoriko feature playrooms for children. Many trains also provide at-seat music entertainment.
  • Overnight trains. West Japan Railway’s luxury Twilight Express service between Osaka and Sapporo and West JR’s Legato service appealing to the budget traveler are examples of two new train concepts serving the high end and the low end of the rail travel market. Yet, both trains provide this service with style. The Legato railcars feature a unique 1-1-1 seating configuration for greater seated privacy and comfort. These railcars are outfitted with electronically reclining Recarro seats and footrests. Customers are also provided with blankets and slippers.
  • Conventional intercity trains. While most tourists to Japan associate the Shinkansen as synonymous with Japanese trains and technical prowess, there are a multitude of intercity trains operating over narrow gauge tracks which have been introduced in recent years– bringing higher standards of comfort to non-Shinkansen intercity trains. Trains of this type include: the Super Azusa, Super Hitachi, the stylish Super Raicho, the Tsubame (which looks like a narrow gauge version of the French TGV), Super Tokachi, etc. Each of these trains feature at-seat entertainment (music and/or TV) in Green Class, and stylish interiors regardless of class booked.
  • Airport express trains. Featuring specially fitted interiors designed to accommodate luggage, drink vending machines, on-board telephones and other needs of airport travelers, the Brunel award-winning Narita Airport Express (NEX) and West JR’s Haruka trains are excellent examples of purpose-built rolling stock designed to meet specific market needs.
  • Regional line rolling stock. Within the past few years, a number of electric multiple unit and diesel multiple unit railcars have been introduced on regional and secondary main lines, offering better standards of passenger comfort than before. These newer railcars have replaced older, spartan railcars with fixed bench seats which I have always thought were uncomfortable. New Wide View Hida railcars linking Nagoya and Toyama, and similar derivatives serving the Minobu Line have brought “mainline comfort” to those lines. New active tilt body trains such as the Super Yakumo have slashed travel times on the sinuous mountain journey between Matsue and Okayama, while other tilt body trainsets have reduced travel times between Sapporo and Kushiro and on Shikoku between Matsuyama and Okayama.
  • Branch lines. Even the humble branch lines, such as those between Kushiro and Nemuro or between Kabuchizawa and Komoro have been improved with the delivery of new lightweight rail diesel cars– which typically feature one man operation for more cost efficient operation. Given that high labor costs have doomed many branch line operations around the world, it is encouraging to see new vehicles with efficient one man operation being introduced on these lines.

Without a doubt, the design and styling of Japanese trains are the most creative and the most imaginative in the world. Impressive is the fact that new standards of customer comfort have spread to all parts of the rail network, instead of being focused on just one or two market segments– such as just on the high speed trains or the airport express services.

In my discussions with overseas visitors and tourists (i.e. non-transportation planners), even the casual tourist cannot help but to notice the incredible variety of Japanese trains plying the rails. And quite often many visitors ask “why can’t we have such stylish or comfortable trains in the United States?” Good question– why indeed?

Given the dramatic improvements which have occurred during the first ten years of Japan Railways, and the current momentum of progress, I can scarcely wait to see what exciting developments the next decade of service will bring.