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History of rail transport in Japan


History of rail transport in Japan

This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series.

The history of rail transport in Japan began in the late Edo period. There have been four main stages:[1]

  1. Stage 1, from 1872, the first line, from Tokyo to Yokohama, to the end of the Russo-Japanese war;
  2. Stage 2, from nationalisation in 1906-07 to the end of World War II;
  3. Stage 3, from the postwar creation of Japanese National Railways to 1987;
  4. Stage 4, from privatisation to the present, with JNR split between six new railway operators for passengers and one for freight.


  • Stage 1: Early Development, 1872-1906 1
  • Stage 2, 1906-1945 2
    • Pre-war development 2.1
    • Wartime situation 2.2
  • Stage 3, 1945-1987: Post-war recovery and development 3
  • Stage 4, 1987-present: The current situation 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7

Stage 1: Early Development, 1872-1906

In Yokohama, 1874
No. 1, one of the earliest locomotives later type 150, was UK made

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 steam locomotive in Nagasaki. Saga Domain, a Japanese feudal domain (han), made a working model and planned to construct a line. Bodies such as the Satsuma Domain and the Tokugawa shogunate reviewed railway construction., but a line did not come to reality before the Meiji Restoration.

The Briton Edmund Morell, was the first Engineer-in-Chief of the government railway, and is respected as the father of Japanese railways

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).[2] In 1868 Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish merchant, was responsible for bringing the first steam locomotive, "Iron Duke", to Japan, which he demonstrated on an 8-mile track in the Ōura district of Nagasaki.[3] The government of Japan decided to build a railway using British financing and 300 British and European technical advisors: civil engineers, general managers, locomotive builders and drivers.[4] 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.[5]

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 trained Japanese engineers to undertake 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 their contributions to Japan's railways.[5] The reason of rail gauge choice remains uncertain.[6] It could be because 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) was supposed to be cheaper than 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm), or because the first British agent, later whose contract was cancelled, ordered iron sleepers to thise gauge. It seems likely Morel's previous experience building Cape gauge railways in similar New Zealand terrain may have been a significant influence, and Cape gauge became the de facto standard.[5]

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 network terribly slow. Politicians then wanted to allow private companies to build railways. Consequently, Nippon Railway was founded as a private entity, strongly effecting the government's projects. It expanded railways 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 opened 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.

Railways were was introduced for both inter-city and 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.

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.

A tramcar of ex-Kyoto Electric Railway, now operated in a field museum Meiji Mura

Stage 2, 1906-1945

Pre-war development

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 from Germany arrived in Kyushu in 1889. Early British locomotives were often tank locomotives, while the earliest American locomotives were 2-6-0 and 4-4-0 types with tenders. German manufacturers produced a number of smaller tank locomotives including some for 762 mm (2 ft 6 in) narrow 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. His 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.[5]

D51, debuted in 1936, is the most mass-produced steam locomotive in Japan with 1,115 units.
South Manchuria Railway

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 the Railway Nationalization Act was promulgated, nationalizing many trunk railway lines. From this time, the nationalised railway became the major Japanese network.

However, having used its money for nationalizing, the government did not have enough money to expand the network to the countryside. It passed the Light Railway Act, encouraging smaller private operators to build light railways (軽便鉄道 keiben tetsudō).

Larger private railway operators developed their businesses, modeled on interurbans. Hanshin Express Electric Railway (the current Hankyu Railway) built its own department store connected to its terminus; the management model is still used. Unlike interurban operators in United States, which suffered from motorization as early as the 1910s, Japanese counterparts did not experience the phenomenon until the 1960s, giving them stable development and allowing their survival.

The first subway in the East (the current Tokyo Metro Ginza Line) opened in 1927. The first trolleybus appeared in 1928.

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 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 link and pin couplers of locomotives and cars to automatic couplers in July 1925 in Honshū and Kyūshū after considerable preparation.[7] On April 1, 1930, the Ministry of Railways adopted the metric system, replacing Imperial units, for the measuring of railways.[8]

Wartime situation

Soldiers leaving home by train
Hiroshima streetcar No.651 destroyed by A-bomb. This car was repaired and was used after the war.

After the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (World War II), the railways came under 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) and Kinki Nippon Railway.

In this period there was a second wave of nationalization. Twenty-two railway companies were forcibly acquired by the government in 1943 and 1944. Unlike the first wave in 1906–1907, which integrated trunk lines into government control, this wave mainly targeted railways with industrial value. The 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 following the use in the military.

From 1943, the national railway reduced its civilian passenger service, putting priority on 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 forced to discontinue their business in order to satisfy the military demand for steel.[9]

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 Japan if excluding the explosion of military train of the Okinawa Prefectural Railways on December 11, 1944 that resulted in about 220 deaths.

The war, especially strategic bombings by United States, damaged the railways heavily. The worst case was in Okinawa, which lost its railways until the opening of Yui Rail in 2003. In most cases, railways resumed operations fairly quickly. Some lines of the national railway resumed 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
  • 1942 – Opening of Kanmon Tunnel connecting Honshū and Kyūshū
  • 1945 – End of World War II; railways were severely damaged

Stage 3, 1945-1987: Post-war recovery and development

Kodama, debuted in 1958, was the first EMU limited express train by JNR, linking Tokyo and Osaka.
101 series EMU, an innovative commuter train, debuted in 1957.
Tōkaidō Shinkansen made its first service in 1964.

It took several more years for the railways to fully recover. After the defeat, the lack of materials caused facilities to not be properly maintained. The lack of materials necessitated people buying in wholesale resulting in a rapid increase in passengers. Train services were further reduced due to the lack of coal. Overcrowded trains resulted in numerous accidents. Transportation related to U.S. General HQ (GHQ) was given first priority, with many "Allies Personnel Only" trains.

In 1949, under the directive of the GHQ, Japanese National Railways (JNR), a state-owned public corporation.

Beginning in the 1950s, the electrification of trunk lines began to progress. 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 haulage, and most were decommissioned by 1976. Many trains were converted from locomotive-hauled services to electric or diesel multiple units. The "New Performance Trains" (新性能電車 Shin-seinō densha), such as 101 series EMU developed in 1957, symbolize the phenomenon.

The 1960s saw great improvement in the economy, including the railways. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the first modern high-speed rail line, opened in 1964. Many limited express trains and overnight trains started to cross the nation, marking the golden age of railways.

However, Japan finally began to experience motorization, and tram networks in cities were treated as obstacles to vehicles. They quickly disappeared, partly replaced by rapidly built subway networks. The first monorail, the Ueno Zoo Monorail, 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) to redevelop major five lines in the area by making them quadruple track. This improved passenger flow through the network tremendously.

The cost of the campaign and the construction of Shinkansen and other lines further increased debt. Confrontation between the unions and management was serious, resulting in many strikes. To resolve the situation, JNR was privatized in 1987, separated into seven separate companies known collectively as the Japan Railways Group (JR Group).

Stage 4, 1987-present: The current situation

SCMaglev train on the Yamanashi test track

After the privatization, the JR companies tried to improve their services, some of them being successful. At the same time, many local lines with lower ridership closed, since JRs are now private companies. Decades after motorization, railways in the countryside, often inconvenient with infrequent services, became less important for locals. The share of railroads in total passenger kilometers fell from 66.7 percent in 1965 to 42 percent in 1978 and 29.8 percent in 1990.

Fierce competition between railway operators put a great emphasis on efficiency, possibly more so than safety. Some think the Amagasaki rail crash in 2005, which killed more than 100 passengers, is the result of such a trend.

Rail transport in Japan still deserves its reputation for efficiency, capacity, punctuality, and technology. Port Liner, one of the first Automated guideway transit systems in 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 reached its world record speed of 581 km/h in 2003, while the much slower Linimo, debuted in 2005, is the first maglev metro in the world.

The development of Japan in the 20th century is analogous to that of its rail transport. Throughout the times, railways were the most important means of transportation, and it still is in larger cities. As many suburban cities were developed by railway operators, its unchallenged importance is something unique in the world.

See also


  1. ^ Wakuda Aoki, et al., A History of Japanese Railways 1872–1999 (2000)
  2. ^ Free, Early Japanese Railways 1853–1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan, (Tuttle Publishing, 2008) (ISBN 4805310065)
  3. ^ Semmens, Peter (1997). High Speed in Japan: Shinkansen - The World's Busiest High-speed Railway. Sheffield, UK: Platform 5 Publishing.  
  4. ^ Free, (2008)
  5. ^ a b c d Naotaka Hirota Steam Locomotives of Japan (1972) Kodansha International Ltd. pp.22-25,34-38,44-46&52-54 ISBN 0-87011-185-X
  6. ^ Akira Saito (June 2002), "Why Did Japan Choose the 3'6" Narrow Gauge?" (PDF), Japan Railway & Transport Review (EJRCF) (31): 33–38 
  7. ^ (Japanese) 鉄道博物館 展示資料紹介 [自動連結器]
  8. ^ Ishino, Tetsu et al. (eds.) (1998). 停車場変遷大事典 国鉄・JR編 [Station Transition Directory - JNR/JR] (in Japanese). Tokyo: JTB Corporation. pp. 63–64, vol. I.  
  9. ^ 不要不急線 lists the lines.

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Winchester, Clarence, ed. (1936), "The railroads of Japan", Railway Wonders of the World, pp. 206–214  illustrated description of the development of Japanese railways to 1936
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