Japan’s impromptu commuter lines: Kita-Ayase and Hakata-Minami

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.

by dhchen on flickrThe 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.

Following precedent

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.

by kamoda on flickrUntil 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.)

Brief travel update: Riding the Philippine rails (or not)

Having spent a couple of days in Manila catching up with old friends, it is now time to head to the south. My plan had been to take the Southrail train all the way from Manila to its terminus in Legaspi in the Bicol region at the SW tip of Luzon-a roughly 15 hour ride on the aging pre-WW2 train system with a top speed of around 50km/hr. This travel plan had been slightly augmented when I met a Dutch girl who had just arrived the same day as I to do a four month tour working at an education related NGO and doing research for her MA who was very keen on the idea of joining me on the trip.

We met up yesterday to work out the details, and being somewhat confused by how the time tables on the official website had no relationship with the information presented in the Lonely Planet, printed in 2006, I called the number on the website only to be told in that in fact both time tables were entirely wrong, due to the fact that the line has in fact been closed for around two years. Astonishingly, this rather critical detail is printed nowhere on the Philippine National Railway website that I could discover, nor on the Wikipedia page (at least in English).

After looking around a bit, I discovered that the line has been closed since a typhoon caused major damage in 2006. Since, as I mentioned, the line was ancient and only ran at pathetic 50km/hr (like 30 mph), they had been planning to rehabilitate it and upgrade to a modern system that could at the very least be called “high speed” when compared to the old line. Since the planning for the rehabilitation and upgrade was already underway, it seems that they decided not to even bother with the easier and faster work needed to simply reopen the train as it was before the typhoon, and instead take the opportunity presented by a complete closure to complete the long-term project more rapidly and efficiently. They claim that the new, higher-speed Southrail train will in fact be opening by the end of the year, although considering that New Jersey Transit has been unable to finish the repairs to the Newark Broad Street Station that has kept the Montclair Line that goes from my house to Manhattan from providing weekend service for at least a year past the originally promised date, combined with the notorious Philippines corruption, I have little confidence in this date being kept.

It is worth noting that, as in the good old USA, the Philippines (or at least the main island of Luzon) had a substantially more extensive and better rail system before WW2. In addition to the Southrail, there is also an old Northrail that hasn’t run for many years, as well as some smaller branch lines, and also a number of trams around the Manila area which were completely annihilated by the bombing of WW2 during the re-conquest of the city. Metro Manila mass transit rail has only in recent years begun to be replaced by elevated rail lines, which currently includes one MRT line and LRT lines 1 and 2, to which a 3 is curently under construction and more are planned, including a direct rail link to the new airport at some point.

Having taken this detour to learn a bit about the history and state of the Republic of the Philippines railway system, in the end Joosye (which is pronounced nothing like how you think) and I will be taking the bus.

Stimulus or investment? Japan vs. USA

Ever since the start of our current financial disaster various economists and pundits have been comparing first the US banking problems with Japan’s, and then more recently the infrastructure-heavy stimulus program with Japan’s construction state. Today’s NYT has a substantial article that easily marks the most high profile comparison yet. I’m certainly no economist and I’m not even taking the time to look at numbers right now, but my quick take on the issue is that the comparison is being significantly overblown, but it is still a very worthwhile comparison to make, so that Japan’s various successes and mistakes can be absorbed as lessons. See the following summation of Japan’s massive pork spending:

Dr. Ihori of the University of Tokyo did a survey of public works in the 1990s, concluding that the spending created almost no additional economic growth. Instead of spreading beneficial ripple effects across the economy, he found that the spending actually led to declines in business investment by driving out private investors. He also said job creation was too narrowly focused in the construction industry in rural areas to give much benefit to the overall economy.

He agreed with other critics that the 1990s stimulus failed because too much of it went to roads and bridges, overbuilding this already heavily developed nation. Critics also said decisions on how to spend the money were made behind closed doors by bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry, and often reflected political considerations more than economic. Dr. Ihori said the United States appeared to be striking a better balance by investing in new energy and information-technology infrastructure as well as replacing aging infrastructure.

Japan’s huge boom in public works spending was less a national stimulus program than a gigantic rural welfare program of pork-barrel projects designed to prop up the ailing LDP in its long decline. The money was largely directed not to the areas where it would benefit the largest number of people, but the areas where it would benefit the largest number of politicians. This was not done entirely out purely cynical political motives but also due to a genuine desire to arrest the decline of the rural regions themselves, in the face of continuing urbanization and a decline in Japan’s traditional and lionized (if anachronistic) agricultural lifestyle. Regardless of intent, a huge proportion (I won’t use words like “most” without looking at actual numerical research) of the spending was “stimulus” but not “investment”.

I am very, very wary of the general principal of “economic stimulus.” I am not opposed to government spending, or even large amounts of government spending, as long as it is being spent on something that is actually necessary or build further value in the future, i.e. services or investment. I think this attitude should be obvious from the mass transit funding letter I wrote and posted here a few days ago. In short, I worry that the discussions on spending currently ongoing in Washington may turn into a series of worthless boondoggle projects oriented at unpopulated rural areas, combined with random tax cuts and other expenditures poorly aimed at short-term (i.e. one election cycle) economic recovery, while continuing to ignore the trillions of dollars in outstanding repairs or upgrades as well as vital new investment that the country needs. I think it’s safe to say that politicians are going to spend this money. The question is, what will it buy us? Would we rather have a bunch of bridges to nowhere, vacant museums and amusement parks in virtually deserted rural towns, and paved-over mountain tops, or would we rather have a modern electrical grid, mass transit that at least meets late 20th century standards if not 21st century, a safe and reliable water system, bridges rated to not collapse, and maybe even an adequate system of public health care?

Mass transit pleas sample letter

I’ve posted the sample latter I published here the other day on a few relevant Facebook groups to try and spread the word, but I want to remind any registered-to-vote American readers to follow up on this. I know everyone reading this is a train fan. You’ve either been to Japan or Taiwan or you want to go, and that means you appreciate what real mass transit infrastrucute can do for a county. If you decided to go ahead and send my letter or a modified version, great-and if you decided to write your own, send it to me or post it here to share.

Mass transit plea

Having been rather frustrated by the lack of much serious discussion of guiding any of the so-called stimulus money towards investment in much needed mass transit infrastructure upgrades, I decided to compose a letter to my two Senators and one local Representative asking them to work towards this agenda. I’ve attached my text below, and I implore registered USA voters to send a similar letter to their own congressional delegation, and to pass along a request to potentially interested registered voters you know. So few people actually write politicians on these issues that a surprisingly small number of contacts can, on occasion, spur them to take at least a mild stand on an issue. This is the first time in many years that Congress has even considered taking an interest in mass transit/rail investment and we mustn’t let it pass Continue reading Mass transit plea

The Himeji Monorail

I just learned of the existence of the Himeji Monorail, from my housemates who spotted it today when walking around after a castle visit. Japanese Wikipedia has a decent article on it. It opened in 1966, but shut down in 1974. While it was a novelty, it was so expensive that “two people could ride the bus and have change left over” for the same money, on top of fulfilling no practical need in a small city with a decent bus system and low traffic density. After the novelty factor wore off, ridership declined precipitously and it was left running in the red. The final nail in the common was the withdrawal of Lockheed, who had manufactured the system, from the monorail industry. This made further maintenance impractical, particulalry for a money-bleeding system. After years of “suspended” service, it was officially decomissioned in 1979, but most of the ruins survive.

The car depot/terminal station, which still has all the original cars in it, is currently closed to the general public but is scheduled to be converted into a museum by 2011.

This Japanese page has a bit more info on it, but this one has an excellent collection of images, including original tickets.

1905 NYC Subway footage

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This is all kinds of awesome, particularly since it looks basically the same as today. The first 5 minutes is more or less the same, but at 5:00 you can see a station full of people.

Halloween in Tokyo

Apparently the Halloween party train on the Yamanote Line went off without a hitch:

This year’s story is rather interesting because of the crazy 2channeler element — check out the organizers’ assertion that the police showed up to protect the drunk foreigners from crazy organized otaku. Guess the latter get more scrutiny than the former these days.