Thursday, May 30, 2024


A Japanese time warp travel experience Riding the vintage EMU Kumoha-42

UPDATE: Since this article was written in 1998, the KuMoHa EMU's discussed in this article continued in service until 2000.

By Kenneth Lin and Hiroshi Naito


When overseas visitors think of trains in Japan, they are likely to conjure up images of sleek, modern, high speed Shinkansen ("bullet" trains) speeding through the countryside, linking major city centers. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes Japanese technical prowness than such trains. Yes, Japan is famous for its Shinkansen services, but tucked away in a remote corner of western Japan, on the main island of Honshu is something truly unexpected -- the series Kumoha-42 railcar.

The Kumoha-42 electric multiple unit (EMU) railcar is 65 years old, and it is still in regular scheduled service. There are two such railcars left in service. Appearance wise, its boxy, unstreamlined shape couldn't present a greater contrast to today's streamlined Japanese trains. For North American visitors, the Kumoha-42 recalls those glorious days when electric interurban criss-crossed the United States, linking rural communities to cities. The Kumoha-42s even look like American style interurbans. Alas, those days and interurbans are a memory in the United States, but a sample of such service still lives on in this off-the-beaten part of western Japan.

To find the Kumoha-42 requires a certain amount of effort, as they do not operate in passenger service on the main line, or even a secondary line. They operate on a short branch line -- but to find these last two railcars is well worth the effort for you will be transported to an era evocative of an earlier Japanese travel experience. Without too much imagination, one could even imagine cousins of this ilk trundling across the plains of mid-America.

The remaining two units of the Kumoha-42, Kumoha #42001 and #42006, today work on West Japan Railway's Motoyama branch of the Ube/Onoda Line, in the western-most part of the main island of Japan. The Motoyama branch itself is improbable, a short 3 kilometer spur connection, linking the two stations of Suzumeda and Nagato-Motoyama. There is but one intermediate station stop at Hamagouchi.

Resplendent in its dark chocolate brown livery, the Kumoha-42 well conveys the ambiance of a pre-war type EMU with its square, regularly aligned, narrow passenger windows, riveted body sides and most decidedly heavyweight, unstreamlined appearance. These are the surviving heritage of the old EMUs that were developed by the ex-Japan National Railway (JNR) prior to World War II.


Thirteen Kumoha 42s were built between 1933 and 1934 for inter-city service on the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe segment of the National Railway. This was and still is one of the busiest urban corridors in Japan, as the corridor was electrified to meet growing passenger ridership. While the Kumoha 42 was designed as a third class dual-cab motor car, originally named Moha 42, there were derivatives, including:

the Moha 43, a third class single cab motor car
the Kuha 53, a third class single cab car
the Kuroha 59, a second-third dual class single cab car
the Saroha 46, a second-third dual class trailer

totaling 105 in the manufactured number of the series.

The Mohayuni 44

A third class passenger, baggage and mail motor car dedicated to the Yokosuka line -- was also a variant of this series. In those days, in the Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe) area, some private railways were already competitively offering high-speed urban rail services connecting major cities in the area with powerful EMUs. The introduction of the Kumoha 42s was JNR's new strategy to regain its competitiveness against its rival railways on the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe travel corridor. Under these circumstances, the Kumoha 42 featured a 20 m lengh class EMU for the first time, with two passenger doors located at the car ends and an interior fitted with high backed, upholstered, transverse seats -- which made it JNR's most attractive and popular railcar in those days.

A few years later, as the new, streamlined Kumoha 52 Series made its debut in exclusive use for express service on the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe corridor, the Series 42 was relegated to mostly local services. During World War II, six of the series were modified to other model types featuring three or four passenger doors. The remaining seven Kumoha-42s survived in its original two-door configuration. After the war, around 1950, these seven Kumoha 42s were transferred east to the Tokyo area to replace the Moha-32s (similar car type but 17 m length class of EMU) operating on the Yokosuka line. The following year, as the Series 72, the line's premier EMUs -- featuring a semi-streamlined appearance -- was reinforced, displacing the Kumoha 42 -- five of them were relocated to the Ito Line. The Ito Line is a short line which serves the foot of Izu Peninsula, approximately 100 km west of Tokyo.

By 1957, all seven Kumoha 42s were transferred to far off rustic lines -- four to the Iida Line, and three to the Ube/Onoda line. Alas, the four on the Iida Line were all scrapped in 1978. Happily the three remaining Kumoha 42s on the Ube/Onoda Line (numbers 42001, 42005 and 42006) have managed to survive and remain in service despite the line's modernization in 1981. Although one of them, #42005, was withdrawn from service in 1987, the remaining two railcars, #42001 and #42006 are still in revenue service on the Motoyama branch of the Ube/Onoda Line.

(Kumoha 52004, built in 1937, preserved in a static exhibition at Sakuma Rail Park on the Iida line.
By Anthony Robins)


Technology The Kumoha-42 is equipped with four 750 VDC, 110 kW traction motors. The ratio of power to mass appears to be rather poor in contrast to contemporary EMUs used by other private railways (featuring 150 kW-class traction motors), but its performance was adequate as an interurban EMU, with its reasonably designed decelerating gear ratio, 2.26, and with its capability of running at a maximum speed of 95 km/h.

One of other prominent features of the Kumoha-42 was its DT12 carbody trucks featuring axle coil springs rather than the equalizer systems commonly used on EMUs then on private electrified railways. The trucks using this new technology improved the passenger riding comfort and was effective in reducing the axle weight.

The electrical equipment fitted under the floor included a six-unit main resistor, a traction controller, an air compressor and a 3 kW motor-generator set -- all of which were equipment commonly used for the old JNR EMUs, representing traditional JNR EMU technology.

Let's take a look at inside the railcar. The most distinctive feature is 12 sets of regularly spaced transverse, high back seats, surrounded with an attractive, wood varnished interior. The wooden interior presents a warm ambiance, typical of an older EMU used in urban corridor service in the Kansai and, later, Tokyo area. The seat pitch was 1400 mm, rather tight in contrast to that of modern EMUs, and no armrests were fitted. Nonetheless, it was adequate as a third-class passenger environment in those days. The size of the passenger windows was 600 mm, rather small, but they were rationally arranged corresponding to the bays of each set of facing seats.

Let's look around the cab. The cab is a compartment type, so the longitudinal passenger seat opposite the cab provides a good "railfan's" seat to see the view forward and the tracks ahead. Inside the cab is a controller and an automatic brake handle, which were commonly used on old JNR EMUs. Today, some one-man operational devices fitted around the cab, such as mirrors and a fare box (with a modified cab partition), slightly spoil its originality-- but this cannot be helped. Despite these modifications, the Kumoha 42 very much retains the ambiance of an old JNR EMU with its interior and exterior appearance largely intact.

About Ube/Onoda Line

The Ube/Onoda line is a general term for two independent lines -- the Ube Line and Onoda Line. The Ube Line, originating from Ogori on the Sanyo Main Line (also a transfer point for the Shinkansen services), runs about 33 km to the west by taking a roundabout route along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, and then rejoins the Sanyo Main Line at the town of Ube. Along the way, at Ube-Shinkawa, is where the line's depot is located.

The Onoda Line diverges from the Ube Line at Ino Station, which is just 1.8 km west of Ube-Shinkawa and 4.3 km short of reaching Ube and rejoins the Main Line at Onoda after taking a further detour route.

At Suzumeta station At Suzumeda station. On the right is a Series 105 EMU. The Motoyama branch, where the Kumoha 42 operates, starts from Suzumeda, which is 6.5 km west of Ino on the Onoda Line. This short branch is only 2.3 km long, between Suzumeda and Nagato-Motoyama with one intermediate station. For photographers seeking a variety of lineside shots, this branch can be easily walked along.

The Ube and Onoda Lines were originally private railways opened in 1914 and 1915, respectively. They were mainly built to serve the limestone, coal and cement industries around the Ube area, and service started with steam-hauled freight and passenger trains. The Ube Railway was electrified using 1500 VDC service in 1929, and electric railcar operations commenced with its originally built EMUs. Both lines were nationalized in 1943. The configuration of today's Ube/Onoda line was completed around 1950.

After World War II, the Ube/Onoda Line was served by a variety of EMUs transferred from other metropolitan areas, including miscellaneous car types from former private railways purchased as a result of nationalization. This included various types of old JNR EMUs, both 17 m and 20 m-class cars. It was almost as if these two lines were a dumping location for old JNR EMUs. The Kumoha-42s were part of these relocated EMUs and were placed into service for the short Motoyama Branch Line. The Ube/Onoda Line was finally modernized in 1981 with the introduction of modern Series 105 EMUs and Series 123 single units, finally displacing all remaining older JNR EMUs, except of course for the Kumoha-42s that were set aside for the Motoyama Branch service.

(At Suzumeda station. On the right is a Series 105 EMU. )

Operations Today

Today, the two remaining Kumoha-42s are stationed at JR West's Shimonoseki maintenance workshop. One unit, usually #42006, is sent to Ube-Shinkawa depot to be put in service. Every day, the unit leaves Ube-Shinkawa depot at 06:23 and directly enters the Motoyama Branch. It works five round trips in the morning, with the last morning service arriving at Suzumeda at 09:15. It then rests or lays up at Suzumeda until the start of afternoon service, which starts at 16:34.

During the afternoons, it works six round trips, leaving Nagato-Motoyama at 22:17 for the last trip of the day, returning to Ube-Shinkawa depot at 22:23. On Saturdays, one round trip is added in the early afternoon.

On every other weekday from Monday to Friday, between the morning and evening duties, it is deadheaded to/from Shimonoseki maintenance workshop for regular inspections. At that time, it runs on the Sanyo Main Line between Ube and Shimonoseki, a distance of 43.6 km, at a maximum speed of 95 km/h-- providing a performance display worthy of a onetime EMU superstar.


Why has the Kumoha-42 survived as long as it has, and how much longer could it survive? There are a couple of reasons. Perhaps it is because of the fact that it has dual operating cabs suitable for short branch line workings on the Motoyama Branch. Or perhaps it is because of JR West's positive attitude towards preserving a great EMU heritage from the old JNR days, while providing a railfan attraction as well. In our conversations with JR West's rolling stock managers, there does not seem to be any immediate plans to replace the Kumoha-42s. However, it was mentioned that the lack of spare parts complicates maintenance. So it is true that the Kumoha-42(s) is the last of its type still running in regular service within Japan-- an endangered species.

Ride them while you can!

March 1998


The information and data were taken from the Railway Pictorial No. 645, November 1997.
Photos by Kenneth Lin unless specified. Copyrights all reserved.

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