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Japan rail network developments

Japanese railways go for better social integration

Japan as a country with one of highest population densities in the metropolis areas early recognized the importance of promoting railways. However, the ageing society and internet spread let the railway companies feel the declining passenger figures, especially in rural areas. The aim of this article is to report about countermeasures in order to increase passengers by reporting some success stories of social integration of railways.
By Wilfried Wunderlich

The management of railways is becoming more related to marketing and organizing issues rather than to the technical ones. This article emphasizes, how passenger demand is created by luxury trains, franchise business and the effort of local communities. Not all described ideas may be transferable to other countries, but the conclusion is that along with the development of new rail technology, the rail companies should focus more on market analysis and social improvement according to the passenger needs.

New rail technology

The so-called hybrid trains are using power supply from rechargeable batteries or SOFC fuel cells, when operated in the non-electrified section of the rail network. After testing since 2007 [1], the DMU E 200 is in operation on the Koizumi line. The success led to the construction of new trains such as HB-E210 and E 300. The shunting locomotives HD300 are now produced in large quantities, and have replaced pure diesel locomotives in Tokyo area.

Sendai Metro East-West-line

Figure 1: The Sendai Metro East-West-line uses the linear motor. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

The linear motor increases the efficiency about 10%. The induction sheet in the middle of the track is part of the motor. Present research tries to keep the gap between the motor on the boogie and the induction track as close as possible [2], because each stray field of electromagnetic waves would reduce the efficiency. This requires stricter limits for the track position and for maintaining it.
Newly constructed metro lines use the linear motor technique for propulsion. The first line in Tokyo was the Oedo line in 2000, followed by the Yokohama Green line in 2008, three lines Osaka and Kobe. The East-West subway line in Sendai (see figure 1) opened in 2015.

On the other hand, standardization has become the main issue, when considering the re-use of train equipment. The habit is that trains with newest technology run on the busiest line, the Yamanote-line in Tokyo. After 10 to 15 years the technology has progressed, so that they are replaced to less-crowded lines, before experiencing a third life on country-side lines or abroad. From this cascade of re-use three or four rail operators can benefit, until the lifetime of the body sets an end.

Improving commuter rail transport in Tokyo

Tokyo area has a dense and cheap public transport system, and a high GDP. As in other East Asian cities [3] the private car owner ship has drastically decreased in the last decades. This is a result of constantly improving the lines [4], the capacity [5] and bottleneck stations [6].

so-called home-liner

Figure 2: Commuters tend to prefer resevered seats in the so-called home-liners. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

Former inter-urban lines are now almost all interconnected with subway or other lines and has reached now 15 lines, a trend which started for Olympia 1964 and will continue for Olympia 2020. The interconnection increases capacity, as it is an empirical rule that there is a drop in passengers when the train reaches its terminal station.

The growth of the transport in the capital city Tokyo also clearly emphasized limits for commuters, as the demands of the human body: A daily commuting time from door-to-door cannot be longer than 1.5 h each way, even then some passengers fall already asleep, as the body needs the rest. Hence, commuters prefer more and more resevered seats in the so-called home-liners (figure 2), which costs a little surcharge for the benefit of a rest during the journey.

A walk to the station is fun, if it is not longer than 15 min, which yield a distance between two railway lines of about 2.5 km in many areas of Tokyo. Passenger flow at crowded platforms requires escalators at least in an average distance of every 100 m. Every 100 m of a longer distance at a transfer between different lines the number of passengers willing to do so decreases. Station area development [7] has highest priority, as it is considered as the gateway to the rail. Change of station train layout is necessary in average every 20 years in order to adjust to the changed life style in society.

Vertical organization of railway companies stands for a certain management optimization strategy, where a supply chain or service chain works in harmony and in optimized manner with the producers, dealers, operators – and of course with the customers. After the interconnection there are some lines in Tokyo, which share trains of more than five different companies. Trains ownership, track ownership, operation, and maintenance have been vertically separated in some cases [4, 8]. When rail managers are “walking in the shoes of a passenger” is the best way to find weak points and optimize a rail system. A new trend is that citizens can participate. Regular lecture meetings are held by an umbrella association, which brings together of semi-professionals, retired professionals, academics, railway fans and interested citizens, in order to discuss further needs for improving details of the rail system. Utilizing such “social capital” besides the professional “human capital” seems to be a new trend of neoliberalism. When the public transport will be improved, the success justifies this method, where all stakeholders can contribute.

Open-day at a train depot

Figure 3: “Open-day at a train depot” is an attractive event for the whole family. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

Promotion events

The railway companies also seek for public attraction, in order to appeal to the costumer friendliness. Recently they organize yearly events mainly during the summer vacations of school children. In Japan visits of train depots started more than two decades ago, when the number of rail-fans started to increase slowly but steadily. Train festivals are designed as family events and people gathering in order to have fun. When visiting such rail festivals at the commuter train depots in Tokyo Metro, it is amazing to see, how young parents could manage to carry their baby strollers across siding tracks (figure 3).

There are several reasons why these events attract so many people. Mascots greet the children at the entrance and provide them a sticker or other presents, as they may be future employees and should have a nice memory and a lot of fun. Rail fans should see the newest rolling stock or the best preserved oldest one. As most of the depots are in the country site, the visit requires the operation of shuttle buses, but their costs seem the organizers worth it. As they are located quite far away from urban center, the revenues from the tickets’ sale of the traveling visitors alone partly compensates and make such events worthwhile to occur. Only very small railway companies charge a small entrance fee of up to 500 Yen, and then visitors can enter the depot the whole year over.

Nevertheless, in spite of the large costs organizing such an event, the media appearance and children memory are most important. Furthermore, sales of calendars, T-shirts, and souvenirs bring additional income. Special and popular items are abandoned railway marks and signs, which let some freaks come to such events as early as possible. Popular photo spots are the carriage lifting for boogie exchange, trains line up, and family pictures in front of a train with children wearing railway uniform, or the ride through a train washer. Long queues or distribution of special reservation tickets document the popularity. A short time later, visitors display their rare experience as videos on the social media in internet.

Hokkaido-Shinkansen “rail-day”

Figure 4: Promotion characters for the Hokkaido-Shinkansen. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

Similarly, the “rail-day” (Tetsudo-no-hi) on second weekend in October has become such a yearly promotion event in Tokyo. Officially a day in order to commemorate the hard work of railway staff, it is organized by the Ministry of Transport. Rail companies from all over the country display in their booths their newest trains, or sell their souvenirs including calendars. Not only rail-fans use this chance to get newest information, but mainly families entertain their children by taking pictures with mascots or a ride on a narrow-gauge open train installed for this event.

On 26 March 2016 the Shinkansen connection through the Seikan tunnel to Hakodate in Hokkaido was opened. The operating companies, JR East and JR Hokkaido, were proud to announce that the connection to Tokyo takes only 4 h 2 min, almost within the limit for a day-return-trip. At the propaganda campaign visitors could stand beside the promotion characters (figure 4). Meanwhile each rail company created its own characters, because Japanese people resonate strongly on personification.

Horizontal operation

Japan rail operators are always searching for new sources of budget. The recent target focusses on trains for leisure [9,10]. “The journey is the aim” is the philosophy behind creating additional passenger demand by luxury trains. In Japan all special express trains or train connections have a special “brand name”, in order to distinguish them from the usual trains. Additionally, the so-called “joy-full trains” operate temporarily during flower-blooming seasons or for winter or summer sports. As they are direct link trains they are faster than ordinary transfer connections.

Kintetsu “Shiokaze”

Figure 5: The target of luxury trains such as the Kintetsu “Shiokaze” are passengers booking a whole journey. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

Train catering became popular [10]. Tickets are sold out as soon as they are for sale. They can only be booked via travel agencies, so they do not appear in the usual time table (figure 5). The engagement in such horizontal business incorporates travel agencies, bus companies for transfer, restaurants for chartering and of course hotels and souvenir shops. Japanese railway companies have also started some actions to attract passengers by achieving greater media attention. While targeting mid-aged people, the TV programs show mainly young attractive ladies report about the train travel, eating local food specialties and enjoy a stay at a spa hotel. On the next day they visit local tourist attractions. Focusing the public mind and interest more on railway usage is from experience one of the most attractive ways to increase the number of passengers.

As the markets are saturated everywhere, especially in tourist travel, there is a demand for more attraction and entertainment. More and more details are refined, such as seats, seat cover, livery, performance, etc., in order to make the whole journey an impressive success. The JR Kyushu Shinkansen is known for its luxurious interior. The highest class in comfort ranking is the “Seven stars in Kyushu” train. After the success other JR companies decided to build also such special “resort trains” [9, 10, 11].

Another strategy is franchise business. During the campaign for advertising the new release of a new episode of the “Star Wars” movie, one of the five “Rapit” trainsets of Nankai railway company with its unique design in special livery makes temporarily advertisement (figure 6). Similarly the train connecting to the Universal studio amusement park has a special wrap design. As the Osaka loop line stops at the castle, the artistic design attracts already the attention of tourists who travel there. The advertisement provides a “win-win” situation for all stakeholders, the organizers, the operators and the customers.