The mass transit oddity in my backyard
I live almost right next to one of the oddest pieces of the Tokyo subway network: the tail end of the Chiyoda Line between Ayase and Kita-Ayase. On a map, it looks like a normal green line, but in reality, it’s anything but normal.
The north end of the Chiyoda Line is practically located at Ayase. From Ayase, the trains continue through onto the Joban Line toward Chiba and Ibaraki. To get to the last station on the Chiyoda Line, you have to walk to “Track 0” at the end of the southbound platform, then board a three-car 5000 series train (an older Tokyo Metro model which now populates the railways of Indonesia), which might not come for 20 minutes. When it does come, you’ll be treated to a mind-numbingly slow ride, such that the folks at Chakuwiki say “it’s like a tourist train” and “you might as well have walked.”
As is the case with most public transit oddities in Japan, there are political factors which led to this situation.
Kita-Ayase is located just south of the railway yard which services all the Chiyoda Line trains, as well as Yurakucho and Namboku Line trains (which can access the Chiyoda Line through tunnels near Kasumigaseki and Ichigaya). The yard opened along with the Chiyoda Line in 1969; at that time, the only passenger stops were between Kita-Senju and Otemachi, but the line to Kita-Ayase was being used to shuttle trains back and forth. Ayase opened for business as a passenger station in 1971, but the branch to Kita-Ayase remained for servicing only.
The people living around the rail yard saw all these trains passing right before their eyes, and so they petitioned the Teito Rapid Transit Authority to build a station at Kita-Ayase, which opened for business in 1979. Because of limitations on available space, the station has a very small platform which can only accommodate a three-car train—hence the use of special sets made of otherwise retired rolling stock. Also unlike the rest of the Chiyoda Line, the Kita-Ayase branch has platform doors due to the fact that its trains have only one conductor.
Ten years later, something very similar happened in Fukuoka. The Sanyo Shinkansen “bullet train” route, which began service to Fukuoka in 1975, terminates at a large rail yard in Nakagawa, a town about eight kilometers from Hakata Station (the main station in Fukuoka). The surrounding area was a quiet and bucolic zone when the line was planned, but doubled in population between 1960 and 1970, then doubled again between 1970 and 1980.
At some point in the late seventies or early eighties, the locals got fed up with the shoddy state of public transport to central Fukuoka. Back then, the only option was to take a bus, despite the fact that there was a beautiful high-speed rail line running straight from their backyard. So they petitioned the train company to build a new station, just like the good citizens of Ayase did, and got their wish for commuter trains in 1990.
There was one big administrative issue which held up the planning of the new passenger service. Japan’s national railway company had just been broken up, and the new service was uncomfortably on the edge of two new companies’ jurisdictions. JR Kyushu had been given authority to operate all local JR service in Kyushu, but JR West had been given authority over the Sanyo Shinkansen. The ultimate solution was to keep the station property and the line under JR West control, but subcontract operation of the new station to JR Kyushu.
Until 2008, the Hakata-Minami Line was operated by old 0-series Shinkansen trains, the same airplane-styled model that plied the Tokaido route in the 60s and 70s. These were retired, and now the line is mainly plied by current-series Shinkansen trains which continue directly to Shinkansen operation after dropping people off at Hakata. The trains are treated as limited expresses, even though the trip is only ten minutes long and costs 290 yen (190 base fare and 100 yen surcharge).
Although the Hakata-Minami Line is much nicer and much more convenient than the Kita-Ayase spur, it shares one common inconvenience: a short platform. Hakata-Minami Station can only handle eight-car trains, whereas Sanyo Shinkansen train sets run up to sixteen cars.
There is one other line on the boundary between Shinkansen and regular lines: the branch line between Echigo-Yuzawa and Gala-Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. This line is served by Joetsu Shinkansen trains from Tokyo during the winter ski season, but it is not treated as part of the Shinkansen; rather, it is treated as a limited express, carrying a 100 yen surcharge just like the Hakata-Minami Line. (The Gala-Yuzawa ski resort itself is incidentally owned by JR East, which is why you see ski packages advertised so heavily on JR trains in Tokyo during the winter.)