English Articles

Japan rail network developments

Artificial trains, artificial destinations

The decreasing passenger numbers are felt especially by the railway companies in the country side. The so-called destination campaigns in order to attack passengers for viewing cherry blossoms, autumn leaves or the ocean are popular advertisement. Appealing alone is not enough, decided some companies and considered why not create artificial destinations. The so-called “Torokko” trains provide open windows where passengers smell the fresh air and have better photo chances. Their different design leads to a new travel experience according to the “slow life” movement. Similar like other railway companies, Kominato railway built their own original train, which is in fact a diesel engine appearing in steam locomotive design (see figure 10).

Kominato “steamer” with diesel engine

Figure 10: The Kominato “steamer” in fact is driven by a Volvo Diesel engine. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

Creation of an artificial destination is a challenge for local communities. The Funaoka hill near Sendai provides beatiful view over the glacial valley and Zao vulcano. The local community decided more than 40 years ago to attract more visitors by planting more than 1000 Japanese cherry trees for spring, hydrangea (hortensia) for summer and marple trees for autuum leave viewing. By helding local festivals the location became very popular. The community built a 1.0 km long monorail in 1996 and was expanded in 2009 to two carriages.

Slope train in Funaoka near Sendai

Figure 11: Planted cherry trees in Funaoka near Sendai became that popular that this slope train was built in 1996. Photo: Wilfried Wunderlich

The so-called “slope-car” is a combination from monorail, people mover and rack rail [21]. It developed from industrial monorails called “Monorack” which are in use since 1960s mostly to carry oranges in steep orchards. The trainset in figure 11 has a 40 passengers capacity and climbs up the slope with a speed of 5 km/h. Most of the slope-cars move automatically and are legally not registered as railways in Japan. More than 80 slope-cars of this kind have been built in the last two decades, mostly for use in parks, golf courses, at dams, or skiing resorts.

Unique destinations attract passengers. They “choose with their feet”: the destination being reached best and high attractive, will become popular and sustainable. The train journey customers like most, will be done again. Talking with friends and posting on social media will increase further potential customers. If there is harmonic agreement between stakeholders, citizens, community principals, shop owners, and the railway company, a city attracts customers. Even the opposite conclusion is true. If a city can be reached easily by public transport systems, it means, the citizens have done a lot of effort in the past.


Instead of severe competition in the last decades it seems that rail transport in Japan is increasing in popularity not only due to ecological needs, but mainly due to the countermeasure of railway operating companies and the will of the municipalities. Regions with good public traffic connections, with good personal relationship to the passengers and local attractions will attract people to come back and make advertisement. The shown examples of better vertical integration and cooperation of the public bodies are becoming more important rather than technical issues such as efficiency increase, and will help to provide a sustainable future for railways.

This item complements the German article
Wilfried Wunderlich: Innovationen auf Japans Schienennetz – Eisenbahn in der Zukunft benötigt bessere soziale Integration. In: Internationales Verkehrswesen (68), Heft 3|2016, S. 51-53


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Wilfried Wunderlich

Dr. Wilfried Wunderlich, Professor for Material Physics, Tokai University, Hiratsuka (JP)