Trams in Japan

My long post the other day on the history of department stores in Kyoto naturally included a lot of discussion on the relationship between department stores and railways. In that I mentioned that:

The predecessor to the Hankyu Railway Company was Minou Arima Denki Kidou (箕面有馬電気軌道), or the Minou – Arima Electric Railway, and called Kiyu Densha (箕有電車). (kidou is a now rarely used word that translates to “permanent way” in English, referring to the physical infrastructure of railway tracks.)

In the comments section, Aaron corrected me by pointing out that the word 軌道 is not itself particularly rare, to which I responded. “I meant that particular usage of 軌道. Actually it’s still commonly used as railway jargon, but not among the general populace. My point is that the idea of seeing a railway actually using 軌道 in its name today would be anachronistic.”

Joe responded to this by pointing out that, in fact, there is a company with such a name in just the next prefecture, Osaka’s Hankai Tramway Co. Ltd., known in Japanese as 阪堺電気軌道.

Looking at Wikipedia’s list of Japan’s 20 or so surviving tram lines  (which thanks to Japan’s huge train otaku community, I think we can safely trust as comprehensive), there are actually three companies with this term kidou in their name. First is the aforementioned Hankai in Osaka, as well as the Nagasaki Electric Tramway (長崎電気軌道) and the Okayama Electric Tramway (岡山電気軌道). Very interestingly, Wikipedia claims that these two railway companies, founded in 1914 and 1910 respectively, are the only two (or at least two of the only, it is not entirely clear) Meiji-era railway companies in Japan to have never changed their name.

However, the Hankai Tramway is a different story. The current, old fashioned corporate name doesn’t even date from the age when it would have been a common name, with the company only having been founded in 1980 when it was spun off from the Nankai Electric Railway Co., which still owns 100% of the stock. The Hankai tramway itself dates back to 1897, and has gone through a dizzying number of acquisitions, sales, and name changes over the years. I won’t even begin to summarize it, but the important fact is that its name from 1910 to 1915, when it merged with 1915. In short, the current name is a relatively modern  (i.e. 1980) revival of a century old name, which I think can fairly be described as anachronistic.

Incidentally, Kyoto has two similar old fashioned tram lines remaining in use, which are currently two separate companies, were founded separately, but were at one point combined.  One, the Randen line going from Shijo-Omiya to Arashiyama was originally the 嵐山電車軌道 or Arashiyama Electric Railroad (founded 1910), but was acquired by Kyoto Electric in 1918. Kyoto Electric established the  Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. (京福電気鉄道) in 1942. (Randen, an abbreviation in Japanese of “Arashiyama Electric Railroad,” is still the name of the line itself, sometimes leading to minor confusion.)

While today, railway companies are most associated with department stores, early electric trains in Japan were often established by electric power companies, before electricity was such a universally available resource. Kyoto Electric (京都電燈) was founded in 1888 to provide coal power to Kyoto, and around 1892 began providing hydroelectric power from the Lake Biwa Canal.  As demand for electricity skyrocketed beyond the capacity of the Biwa Canal plant, Kyoto Electric shrunk, with Kansai Electric eventually taking over their power generation and transport operations. It went bankrupt in 1942, with Keifuku being established to continue the railway operations in its place.
The other old style line in Kyoto, the Eiden going to Kurama and Mt. Hiei, is called the Eizan Railroad (Eiden is an abbreviation of the Japanese, 叡山電鉄), but was previously  the Kurama Electric Railroad (鞍馬電気鉄道) , which had been established in 1927 to manage the railroad that had been started in 1925 by Kyoto Electric, and was later folded into Keifuku. Today it is a wholly owned subsidiary of the much larger Keihan Electric Railway, which acquired all of its shares in stages following its split from the Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. in 1985.

Incidentally, Keifuku Electric Railroad used to also run some trains in Fukui Prefecture, to which today’s Echizen Railway is a successor.

Update: One thing I didn’t specifically mention originally but meant to point out is that all three of the railway companies with kidoh in their name translate it as “Tramway” in English, while no other company or line (as far as I can tell) does so today. The standard word for “tram” itself is also 路面電車.

The Keifuku and Eiden are both trams, but Keifuku also still operates the, Eizan Cable line, which is technically a funicular, even though it is actually located in the territory of Eiden. Amusingly, the tiny cable line on the other side of Mt. Hiei, the Sakamoto Cable, is the only system operated by Hieizan Railway, which began in 1924 and today is, like the Eiden, a subsidiary of Keihan.

3 thoughts on “Trams in Japan”

  1. I mostly use 軌道 in my field (索道/ski lifts) as meaning “trajectory”, and I know it’s used as “orbit” for stellar objects and stuff, but it was interesting to see it has a bit more meaning to it, however obsolete.

    You sure know your stuff about Kansai railways !

  2. Wikipedia’s getting pretty good with Japanese railway-related info, what with all of the folks translating things.

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