A Brief History of Japan’s Railways

Here at Maction Planet we believe, like many, that Japanese trains are the best in the world. When better to wax lyrical about their greatness than today. 14 October is Railway Day – Tetsudo no hi (鉄道の日) – in Japan. We celebrate with a look at the history of the world’s greatest railway network.

Whether we are talking about the efficient movement of people through Greater Tokyo – 20 million daily train passengers according to Train Media – or the country’s famous Shinkansen bullet trains, their punctuality and safety are incredible. According to JR Tokai’s 2016 Annual Report, the average delay per Shinkansen, including delays due to natural disasters, was a mere 12 seconds. JR Tokai run ten Nozomi Tokaido Shinkansen per hour from 16:20 to 20:20 on Fridays – an astounding frequency. Wait until we get the Maglev in 2027, which will cut the journey from Tokyo to Nagoya from 96 minutes to just 40 minutes!

How did we get here?

Japan’s first railway line ran from Tokyo to Yokohama; from Shinbashi to the current site of Sakuragicho station. Survey work for the line began in 1870, and the line was official opened on 14 October 1872. (Purists should know that the calendar was different back then – 14 October was actually 12 September in the Tenpo calendar!) It took 53 minutes to cover the 29km. Now it takes 24 minutes by JR Tokaido honsen (東海道本線).

14 October is an important day in Japanese railway history, and you will see it crop up again symbolically through our brief journey through Japanese history.

Trains represented the modernisation in Japan which took place during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The first trains were powered by British Locomotives and built using British support, symbolic of Japan’s move away from the isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

After the completion of the first line, railways started springing up across the country. In 1874 regular service began between Osaka and Kobe, extending to Kyoto in 1876. In 1883, the first private service began between Ueno in Tokyo and Kumagaya, extended all the way to Aomori northern Honshu by 1891. In the early 1900s, as the country started lessening its dependence on foreign innovation, Japan started manufacturing its own locomotives.

1906 is a crucial year in Japanese Railway history. A number of factors, including military considerations, led to the Railway Nationalisation Act, bringing many of the key trunk lines under government control.

Although we are focussing on the national railway infrastructure here, it is worth noting that in 1927, the first portion of what is now the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line Underground Train, running between Ueno and Asakusa, was built.

On 1 June 1949 the Japanese National Railways (known as Kokutetsu) company was formed, and it was this entity that ran the national network until 1987. A state-owned public corporation, it was instrumental in helping restore the railways after damage sustained during the Second World War. A letter dated 22 July 1948 from General MacArthur, the head of the Allied Occupation Forces who were running the country, instructed the government to reorganise the railways and other state monopolies into ambiguous-termed ‘public corporations’, leading to the births of NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) and Japan Tobacco (Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corporation, as anyone who has been to the Tobacco and Salt Museum will know!).  

Japan’s main Tokaido Line artery which ran from Tokyo to Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto and on to Hiroshima had been suffering congestion from the 1930s. In the 1938, plans were envisaged for a dedicated dangan ressha (bullet train) line from Tokyo all the way past Hiroshima to Shimonoseki, the westernmost city of Honshu, the main island of Japan. This would have then gone through a tunnel between Japan and Korea to connect Japan, Korea and Manchuria. This train would have been 50% faster than other trains at that time. The project was actually begun – land was purchased, tunnels were constructed (some of which are now used by the Shinkansen), but plans were derailed by World War II.

It was this initial plan that became the seeds of the Shinkansen project. Begun in 1959, the Tokaido Shinkansen began running on 1 October 1964, and on 14 October (that date again) it was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for its successful establishment. The shinkansen, which means ‘new trunk line’, was built on international standard gauge, unlike Japan’s incumbent railway system. The project was funded with World Bank financing. After it was completed, it proved to have a much greater economic effect than anyone foresaw, with huge benefits from a high-speed link between Japan’s number one and number two cities (as Osaka was at that time).

The Tokaido Shinkansen cut journeys from Tokyo to Osaka to 4 hours from 6, falling to 3 hours and 10 minutes a year later due to further track development. That journey now takes 2 hours 22 minutes on a Nozomi Shinkansen, and that will be cut to 67 minutes when the high-speed Maglev train extension beyond Nagoya comes into operation in 2045, or potentially earlier.

Speaking of Maglev, it was in 1962, even before the Shinkansen was completed that Kokutetsu began researching a  superconducting magnetic levitation linear propulsion railways system with the target being a train that could complete the journey from Tokyo to Osaka in one hour. On (guess what) 14 October 1972, Maglev tests began with the ML100 train at the Railway Technical Research Institute in Kokubunji. One of these historic trains is still on display there.

In 1972 the Sanyo Shinkansen was begun from Osaka to Okayama, extended to Hakata in Kyushu in 1975.

In 1987 Japan’s national railways were privatised and carved up into six regional for-profit passenger companies and one freight company. The system was streamlined – jobs were cut, local lines with lower ridership were close. Developments continue with new bullet train lines such as the Akita and Nagano Shinkansen in 1997, with the latter extended to Kanazawa in 2015.  

So, why does it all work so well compared to, say, the UK and the US? We can point to cultural differences and talk about national responsibility and kaizen, but there are economic ones too. One of the big differences between Japan and Britain is that each JR company owns all of the infrastructure – stations, tracks and land around railways – within its purview. In fact, many private railway companies also own significant real estate around their lines and stations, the railways have been responsible for a huge amount of development in Japan. Many of Tokyo’s suburbs owe their existence to railway operators.

So, what does the future hold? Well, as well as the already discussed Maglev, there are plans for new Shinkansen lines and further extensions. In 2020, the Nagasaki route of the Kyushu Shinkansen will begin service between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki. In 2025, the Hokuriku Shinkansen will begin running to Tsuruga and in 2035, service on the Hokkaido Shinkansen will be extended to Sapporo.

Whether you are on a train in Tokyo or beyond, or looking forward to a riding the fabled trains of Japan on your visit here, we wish you all a Happy Railway Day from everyone at Maction Planet.

Maction Planet runs differentiated, fully-customised Tokyo Private Tours. For more information contact info@mactionplanet.com and begin your journey to your perfect, personalised time in The World’s Greatest Metropolis. 

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