[From March Issue 2015]
Due to the huge economic impact of high speed shinkansen trains, sleeper trains in Japan are about to disappear. One of the enjoyable things about sleeper trains is the time spent riding on them. Although they were once a means of transportation for students reluctant to spend too much on traveling expenses, sleeper trains today have become a luxurious space for people with both money and time to spend on traveling. Many people are sad to see the discontinuation of the sleeper trains which had a charm that set them apart from ordinary means of transportation.
This March two sleeper trains linking Hokkaido and Honshu will be discontinued. The final run of the “Twilight Express” running from Osaka Station to Sapporo Station along the coast of the Sea of Japan will be on the 12th, while the final run of the “Hokutosei” running from Ueno Station to Sapporo Station along the Pacific coast will be on the 13th. From April to August, a special Hokutosei train service will operate once every two or three days.
There were 39 so called “Blue Train” sleeper trains – painted with a blue exterior – in operation in Japan. The Hokutosei is the last one. The news of its discontinuation surprised even those who weren’t particularly interested in trains. A large number of people want to ride on it at least once before the service is shut down. The occupancy rate of the trains is higher compared to last year.
Dinner is served in the dining car (reservations required), at 6,000 or 8,500 yen a head. The set menus are popular despite being expensive. Long queues form during bar hours when no reservation is required for entry. Since it was decided that the service would be discontinued, people want to buy the original products sold while the train passes through Hokkaido as a souvenir of their last ride. So, now they’ve become hard to get hold of.
At terminuses, many people – including non-passengers –take pictures of the carriages and of the signature plate affixed to the train’s nose. To capture the best shots, some wait for the train at stations where the train does not stop or at curves in mountainous areas. At Hakodate Station, where the train stops for a longer period of time to switch engines, quite a few passengers descend onto the platform with cameras to photograph the scene.
In the past, Blue Trains on other lines were discontinued mainly because of the decreasing number of passengers and the increasing age of the cars. This time, the discontinuation is due to ageing of the cars and the imminent introduction of the Hokkaido Shinkansen. SUZUKI Takafumi of the PR department of JR Hokkaido points out that “the cost to get new cars would be tremendous.” Train carriages that retain an old world atmosphere are attractive, but it’s becoming hard to repair parts and furnishings.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen is scheduled to begin operating in March, 2016. This high speed train is going to operate under different conditions from other shinkansen routes in that it will share a rail track with conventional trains and operate in the coldest part of Japan. “Many different inspections and tests will be carried out in an extremely limited period of time overnight, so it might be necessary to modify the night train timetable,” says Suzuki.
The advantage of the shinkansen is that it’s a speedy and convenient way to travel. It’s expected that the Hokkaido Shinkansen will have a huge impact. “You’ll be able to travel quickly from the Tokyo Metropolitan Area to Hokkaido without changing trains. This will have a positive influence on tourism not only in southern Hokkaido where the shinkansen will be running, but also across the whole of Hokkaido. Ties between Tohoku and Hokkaido will strengthen further,” says Suzuki.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo