History of rail transport in Japan
- This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series.
- from 1872 with the first line from Tokyo to Yokohama, to 1906 at the end of the Russo-Japanese war;
- from nationalisation in 1906-07 to the end of World War II in 1945;
- from the postwar creation of the Japanese National Railways to 1987;
- privatisation from 1987 to present, as JNR was split between six new railway operators for passengers and one for freight.
Though rail transport had been known through Dutch traders in Dejima, Nagasaki and earlier, the impact of model railroads brought by foreigners such as Yevfimy Putyatin and Matthew Calbraith Perry was huge. The British also demonstrated a running steam locomotive in Nagasaki. Saga Domain, a Japanese feudal domain (han), made a working model and even planned to construct a line by themselves. Other bodies such as the Satsuma Domain and the Tokugawa shogunate also reviewed railway construction. But a real line in service did not come into reality before the Meiji Restoration.
Just prior to the fall of the Shogunate, the Tokugawa regime issued a grant to the American diplomat Anton L. C. Portman to construct a line from Yokohama to Edo (soon to be renamed Tokyo). In 1868 Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish merchant, was responsible for bringing the first steam railway locomotive called the "Iron Duke" to Japan which he demonstrated on an 8-mile track in the Ōura district of Nagasaki. The new government of Japan decided to build a railway using British financing and 300 British and European technical advisors who were civil engineers, general managers, locomotive builders and drivers. On September 12, 1872, the first railway, between Shimbashi (later Shiodome) and Yokohama (present Sakuragichō) opened. (The date is in Tenpō calendar, October 14 in present Gregorian calendar). A one-way trip took 53 minutes in comparison to 40 minutes for a modern electric train. Service started with nine round-trips daily.
English engineer Edmund Morel (1841-1871) supervised construction of the first railway on Honshu during the last year of his life, American engineer Joseph U. Crowford (1842-1942) supervised construction of a coal mine railway on Hokkaidō in 1880, and German engineer Herrmann Rumschottel (1844-1918) supervised railway construction on Kyushu beginning in 1887. All three foreign engineers trained Japanese engineers to undertake future railway projects. Two men trained by Crowford later became presidents of Japan National Railways. A bronze bust of Morel in Yokohama, a bronze statue of Crowford in the Temiya Railway Memorial Museum, and a bust of Rumschottel in Hakata commemorate the contributions of foreign engineers to Japan's railways. The reason of rail gauge choice remains uncertain. It could be because 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm), as opposed to standard gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm), was supposed to be cheaper, or because the first British agent, later whose contract was cancelled, ordered iron sleepers of the gauge. It seems likely Morel's previous experience building Cape gauge railways in similar New Zealand terrain may have been a significant influence. Anyway the decision still affects Japanese railways today, as the narrow Cape gauge became the de facto standard.
Some politicians, such as Inoue Masaru, stated all the railway lines should be nationalized. However, the government was financially strained after the Satsuma Rebellion, making the expansion of the railway network terribly slow. Politicians then wanted to allow private companies to build railways. Consequently, Nippon Railway was founded. It was a private entity, but strongly effected the government's construction projects. It expanded railway lines fairly quickly, completing the main line between Ueno and Aomori (present Tōhoku Main Line) in 1891. With the success of Nippon Railway, private companies were also founded. Sanyō Railway, Kyūshū Railway, Hokkaidō Colliery and Railway, Kansai Railway and Nippon Railway were called the "major five private railways" at the time. At the same time, the national railway did open its railway lines, including the current Tōkaidō Main Line in 1889, but most of its lines were subsidiary to major private lines. In 1892, the Imperial Diet promulgated the Railway Construction Act, which listed 33 railway routes that should be constructed by either the government or private entities.
Rail transport was introduced not only for inter-city, but also for intra-city transportation. The first horsecar line in Japan was built in Tokyo in 1882. The first tram was the Kyoto Electric Railway (京都電気鉄道 Kyōto Denki Tetsudō ), which opened in 1895.
Also, some operators began to use EMUs, rather than locomotives, for inter-city transportation. Many such railway companies, modeled after interurbans in the United States, are the origins of the current private railway operators.
- 1872 – Opening of Japan's first railway between Shimbashi (Tokyo) and Yokohama
- 1881 – Foundation of Nippon Railway, Japan's first private railway company
- 1882 – Opening of Horonai Railway, first railway in Hokkaidō
- 1888 – Opening of Iyo Railway, first railway in Shikoku
- 1889 – Opening of Kyūshū Railway, first railway in Kyūshū
- 1889 – Completion of the Tōkaidō Main Line
- 1892 – Promulgation of Railway Construction Act
- 1893 – Class 860 steam locomotive, first locomotive built in Japan
- 1895 – Opening of Japan's first streetcar in Kyoto
Locomotives for the early railways were usually built in the country of the designing engineer. The first railways on Honshu used locomotives built in the United Kingdom. Locomotives from the United States arrived in Hokkaidō in 1888 and locomotives from Germany arrived in Kyushu in 1889. Early British locomotives were often of the tank type while the earliest American locomotives were 2-6-0 and 4-4-0 types with separate tenders. German manufacturers produced a number of smaller tank type locomotives including some for narrow 762 millimetres (2 ft 6.0 in) gauge. Richard Trevithick's grandson Francis Henry Trevithick became locomotive superintendent for JNR in the late 19th century, and ordered locomotives from the United Kingdom including numerous 4-4-0 types. F.H. Trevithick's brother Richard Francis Trevithick designed the first locomotive to be manufactured in Japan in 1893. Japanese manufacturers initially depended heavily on imported locomotive parts. JNR ceased importing locomotives in 1912. Thereafter, with the exception of a few experimental locomotives manufactured by Orenstein & Koppel or American Locomotive Company, production locomotives were JNR designs built by Japanese manufacturers.
Private railway companies were the major players in the early stages. However, after the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, the government planned to directly control the unified railway network for strategic purposes. In 1906, Railway Nationalization Act was promulgated, nationalizing many trunk railway lines. From this time, the national railway became the major Japanese railway network.
However, having used its money for nationalizing, the government didn't have enough money to further expand the network to the countryside. They passed the Light Railway Act, encouraging smaller private operators to build light railways (軽便鉄道 keiben tetsudō ).
Larger private railway operators, on the other hand, further developed their business modeled after interurbans. Hanshin Express Electric Railway (the current Hankyu Railway) built its own department store connected to its terminus; the management model still used today. Unlike interurban operators in United States that suffered from motorization as early as 1910s, Japanese counterparts didn't experience the phenomenon as late as 1960s, giving them stable development and allowing their survival to the present.
In the territories of the Japanese Empire at the time, railways in Korea, Taiwan, and Sakhalin were built by the Japanese. In Manchukuo, a nation in the current Northeast China virtually controlled by Japanese, South Manchuria Railway operated its railway network.
One of achievements in this period in railway technology was the conversion of all the link and pin couplers of locomotives and cars on the national network to automatic couplers. This work took place in July 1925 (in Honshū and Kyūshū) after considerable preparation. On April 1, 1930, the Ministry of Railways adopted the metric system, replacing British Imperial system, for the measuring of railways.
- 1895 – Japan's acquisition of railway in Taiwan
- 1899 – Opening of Keijin Railway, first railway in Korea
- 1906 – Opening of first railway in Karafuto
- 1906 – Foundation of South Manchuria Railway
- 1906–1907 – Nationalization of 17 private railways
- 1910 – Promulgation of Light Railway Act
- 1914 – Opening of Tokyo Station
- 1925 – Introduction of automatic couplers to national network
- 1925 – Inauguration of the Yamanote Loop Line
- 1927 – Opening of Tokyo subway, the first subway in the East
- 1930 – Adoption of metric system
After the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (World War II), the nation, including its railways, went under the military control. In 1938, the government decided to unify private railways into regional blocks, making larger companies such as Tokyo Kyuko Electric Railway (called Great Tōkyū in comparison with postwar Tōkyū) or Kinki Nippon Railway.
Also in this period, there was a second wave of railway nationalization. Twenty-two railway companies were forcibly acquired by the government in 1943 and 1944. Unlike the first wave in 1906–1907 that integrated trunk lines into the governmental control, the second wave mainly targeted railways with industrial value. Those acquired lines include the Tsurumi Line, the Hanwa Line and the Iida Line.
On October 11, 1942, the Ministry of Railways adopted the 24-hour clock system for timekeeping of trains following the use in the military.
From 1943, the national railway reduced its (civilian) passenger service, putting priority for military transportation. In 1944, it abolished all the limited express trains, first class cars, dining cars, and sleeping cars. Under the Ordinance for Collection of Metals (金属類回収令 Kinzokurui Kaishū Rei , Imperial Ordinance No. 835 of 1941), some railway operators were forced to remove one track from double track lines and others were even forced to discontinue their business in order to satisfy the military demand for steel with the rails removed from tracks.
On January 29, 1940, a train fire at Ajikawaguchi Station on the Nishinari Line resulted in 189 deaths. This is the deadliest rail accident in the history of Japan (although the death toll of another accident on the Hachikō Line in 1945 was arguably underestimated and might exceed this).
The war, especially strategic bombings by United States, damaged Japanese railways heavily. The worst case was that in Okinawa, which completely lost its rail transport until the opening of Yui Rail in 2003. In most cases, however, railways at least resumed their operations fairly quickly. Some lines of the national railway resumed right after the day of Tokyo bombing. Sanyō Main Line resumed two days after the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, while Hiroshima Electric Railway resumed three days after.
- 1942 – Adoption of 24-hour clock system
- 1942 – Opening of Kanmon Tunnel connecting Honshū and Kyūshū
- 1945 – End of World War II; railways were severely damaged
Post-war recovery and development
It took several more years for the Japanese railways to fully recover from the war. After the Japanese defeat, the lack of materials caused facilities to not be properly maintained. The lack of materials also necessitated people buying in wholesale resulting in a rapid increase of railway passengers. Train services were even further reduced due to the lack of coal. The post-war situation resulted in overcrowded trains resulting in numerous rail accidents. Meanwhile, transportion related to U.S. General HQ (GHQ) were given first priority, with many "Allies Personnel Only" trains being operated.
In 1949, under the directive of the GHQ, the Japanese Government Railways, which had been directly operated by the Ministry of Transportation, was reorganized as Japanese National Railways (JNR), a state-owned public corporation.
Beginning in the 1950s, the electrification of trunk lines began to progress. The electrification of Tōkaidō Main Line was completed in 1956, the Sanyō Main Line in 1964, and the Tōhoku Main Line in 1968. In 1954, the government decided to abolish steam locomotives, and most were decommissioned by 1976. It was in this time frame that many trains were converted from the traditional locomotive-hauled system to either Electric multiple unit or Diesel multiple unit systems. The "New Performance Trains" (新性能電車 Shin-seinō densha ), such as 101 series EMU developed in 1957, symbolizes the phenomenon.
The 1960s saw great improvement in the Japanese economy, including the railways. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the first modern high-speed rail of the world, opened in 1964. Many limited express trains and overnight trains also started to cross the nation, marking the golden age of Japanese railways.
However, Japan finally began to experience its motorization, and tram networks in cities were treated as obstacles to vehicles. They quickly disappeared, replaced by rapidly built subway networks. The first monorail in the country, Ueno Zoo Monorail, also opened in 1957.
With the expanding economy, the number of commuters using railways rapidly increased, especially in the Greater Tokyo Area. JNR tried to increase its capacity by the Five Directions of Commuting Campaign (通勤五方面作戦 Tsūkin Go-hōmen Sakusen ); the campaign to redevelop major five lines in the area by making them quadruple track lines. This improved passenger flow through the network tremendously, but at the same time created a huge amount of debt for JNR.
The cost of the campaign, as well as that of the construction of Shinkansen and other railway networks, further increased debt. Confrontation between the unions and management was serious, resulting many strikes. To resolve the situation, JNR was privatized in 1987. The national network was separated into 7 separate companies collectively known as the Japan Railways Group (JR Group).
- 1949 – Foundation of Japanese National Railways as public corporation
- 1956 – Completion of electrification of the Tōkaidō Main Line
- 1957 – Opening of Ueno Zoo Monorail, Japan's first monorail
- 1958 – Kodama, the first EMU express between Tokyo and Osaka
- 1960 – Hatsukari, the first DMU express between Ueno (Tokyo) and Aomori
- 1964 – Opening of the first Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka
- 1975 – Retirement of steam locomotives from all JNR services (switchers remained until 1976)
- 1980 – Enactment of JNR Reconstruction Act; low-profit lines were to be abandoned
- 1981 – Opening of Portliner, Japan's first AGT
- 1987 – Privatization of the JNR; the Japan Railways Group companies succeeded the former JNR.
- 1988 – Opening of Seikan Tunnel connecting Honshū and Hokkaidō
- 1988 – Opening of Great Seto Bridge connecting Honshū and Shikoku
The current situation
After the privatization, the JR companies tried to renovate their services, some of them being successful. At the same time, many local lines with lower riderships have closed, since JRs are now private companies. Decades after the motorization, railways in the countryside, often inconvenient with infrequent services, became less important for locals. The relative share of railroads in total passenger kilometers fell from 66.7 percent in 1965 to 42 percent in 1978, and to 29.8 percent in 1990.
Also, the fierce competition between railway operators put a great emphasis on efficiency, possibly more so than safety. Some think Amagasaki rail crash in 2005, which killed more than 100 passengers, is the result of such a trend.
Rail transport in Japan still does deserve its fame with efficiency, capacity, punctuality, and technology. Port Liner, one of the first AGT of the world, opened in 1981. Seikan Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world, and the Great Seto Bridge linked major four islands of Japan by rail in 1988. SCMaglev, a tested maglev train system, reached its world record speed of 581 km/h in 2003, while the much slower Linimo, debuted in 2005, is the first maglev metro of the world.
The development of Japan in the 20th century is analogous to that of its rail transport. Throughout the times, railway was the most important means of transportation in the country, and it still is in larger cities. As many of Japanese suburban cities were developed by railway operators, its unchallenged importance is something unique among the world.
- Rail transportation in Okinawa; for the history of rail transport in the region.
- Rail transport in Japan
- History of rail transport
- History of rail transport by country
- Wakuda Aoki, et al., A History of Japanese Railways 1872–1999 (2000)
- Free, Early Japanese Railways 1853–1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan, (Tuttle Publishing, 2008) (ISBN 4805310065)
- Semmens, Peter (1997). High Speed in Japan: Shinkansen - The World's Busiest High-speed Railway. Sheffield, UK: Platform 5 Publishing. ISBN 1-872524-88-5.
- Free, (2008)
- Naotaka Hirota Steam Locomotives of Japan (1972) Kodansha International Ltd. pp.22-25,34-38,44-46&52-54 ISBN 0-87011-185-X
- Akira Saito (June 2002), "Why Did Japan Choose the 3'6" Narrow Gauge?", Japan Railway & Transport Review (EJRCF) (31): 33–38
- (Japanese) 鉄道博物館 展示資料紹介 [自動連結器]
- Ishino, Tetsu et al. (eds.) (1998). Teishajō Hensen Daijiten - Kokutetsu JR Hen (in Japanese). Tokyo: JTB Corporation. pp. 63–64, vol. I. ISBN 4533029809.
- ja:不要不急線 lists the lines.
- Free, Early Japanese Railways 1853–1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan, Tuttle Publishing, 2008 (ISBN 4805310065)
- Aoki, Wakuda, et al., A History of Japanese Railways 1872–1999, East Japan Railway Cultural Foundation, 2000, (ISBN 4875130899)
- How the Railroad is Modernising Asia, The Advertiser, Adelaide, S. Australia, March 22, 1913. N.B.: The article is of approx. 1,500 words, covering approx. a dozen Asian countries.
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