Monday, 2 May 2016

JAPAN - Kyoto Subway

While I liked Osaka quite well as a city, I was a bit disappointed by Kyoto, but this was probably not the city's fault, but the situation in which I arrived. I took a Super Express from Osaka in the morning of Friday, 29 April, leaving at 9:00, which was packed completely, and me being squeezed in for half an hour with all my luggage with me to continue to Nagoya in the evening. Once I got to Kyoto, it was suddenly cold and windy, as if I had travelled 300 km to a different climate zone. Thousands of people were queuing to get off the platform, but as happens so often with stations designed by some super-renowned architect, they tend to be unpractical, and so is Kyoto's. It is impressive once you get into the main hall, but still not a very pleasant place as the wind blows through it. But I took all those escalators up to the roof from where you can get quite a nice view south and north.

As there was not much time for sightseeing anyway, and later the rain was even less encouraging to do that, I escaped into the Kyoto underworld. I got a day pass (600 Yen; for a bit more, also a day pass for subway+city bus is on offer), but the day pass is not available from machines, just from station clerks, and show a nice traditional motif on them. I took the Karasuma Line north to its terminus at the Congress Center, a very green area. There are lots of trains which belong to the Kintetsu Railway, which operates through the entire line and in the south connects directly to the suburban line to Nara (but also Subway trains continue beyond the southern terminus and provide local suburban service). The stations are all pretty plain, but o.k., the busiest have been equipped with half-height platform gates.

Kintetsu train in service on Karasuma Line

 Karasuma-Oike: the busiest stations have been equipped with platform gates

The second line, the Tozai Line, is newer and looks quite different. I haven't seen its trains properly, because they are hidden behind full-height platform screen doors, which resemble those on Tokyo's Namboku Line. Each station is in a different colour, but once again, the colours are nice but meaningless. They start with yellow at the western terminus and become increasingly red and finally purple, which does not help at all to distinguish two neighbouring stations, because they may just have two slightly different shades of pink. Just the last two stations in the southeast, which opened later, break this system (with pale tones), as probably someone had told them, that the initial idea was nonsense. 

Misasagi: typical station design for the Tozai Line

Uzumasa-Tenjingawa: narrow platform section

The station name and number can easily be read from the train, as there are also signs on the outside of the platform screen doors. Otherwise the stations look pleasant, but are much too small, cramped with staircases and escalators - it appears that staircases in Japan always have massive walls, and in the end the platforms get very narrow in those areas. The Tozai Line also has through operation, but Subway trains do not leave the tunnel (I believe), just the local Keihan trains to/from Hamaotsu join the Tozai Line at Misasagi, which is a bi-level station with two island platforms.

Randen: a light railway in the western districts

From the end of the Tozai Line, at Uzumasa-Tenjingawa, I took the Randen, a light railway, back to Omiya. The station at Uzumasa-Tenjingawa was probably built when the metro was extended from Nijo, and features proper platforms. With lots of people changing here, the Randen has mobile ticket inspectors on the platform. The other stops along the route looked rather pathetic, though with a concrete step rather than a platform to board the old high-floor trains. This little system has its own fare, of course, but modern IC cards can be used.

Hankyu's underground Kyoto terminus at Kawaramachi

Instead of walking back into the centre from Omiya in the light rain, I took the underground Hankyu, which within Kyoto seems to provide a kind of metro service, though with lots of express trains going directly to the last two stations in Kyoto. Also Keihan has several underground stations along its north-south route through the city, but I didn't get a chance to see these.

Having so many visitors, Kyoto has large English maps available, which show all major bus routes, but the Subway lines are hard to identify.

Kyoto was my last stop regarding cities which will be covered in our third volume of our trilogy "Metros & Trams in Japan" (West & South), due to be released in 2018. Apart from all the metro systems I have visited, it will, of course, also include the numerous tram systems in this region.

Previous stop: OSAKA | Next stop: NAGOYA


Kyoto Subway at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)

Sunday, 1 May 2016

JAPAN - Osaka Subway

Cosmosquare - western terminus of the Chuo Line, probably Osaka's nicest Subway station

While I have actually moved on (this blog is now several days behind), a few notes on Osaka, where I stayed for three days (well, in fact five, but two were reserved for Kobe and Kyoto), but three days were not enough to explore this city's urban rail network thoroughly. But I did what I could, rode on all 8 Subway lines and did get a proper look at the "New Tram" as well as the Osaka Monorail. And a bit of JR and private railways, too.

To buy a one-day Subway ticket from ticket machines was no problem. Upon entering the first time at Honmachi (or sometimes spelt as Hommachi), I thought that they have a very nice way-finding system, but later I had to realise that this has not been implemented in many places yet, but I hope it will. It uses strong colours and instead of the Subway logo in the respective line colour, it uses the line letter in a colour circle, probably inspired by the New York City Subway.

The next thing that surprised me was that most lines only run every 8 minutes during off-peak hours, I think just the Midosuji Line is more frequent, but then this line is quite different from the others anyway, it's the most Tokyo-style line with 10 cars and almost always overcrowded. This is quite an interesting issue as it happens in several other cities, too. The very first line remains the busiest, even though many other lines have been built to actually relieve it. Apparently, a first line is always designed to serve the busiest corridors, but if there is just one such corridor and anything a few blocks away is considered too far, then the overcrowding will persist. Theoretically, Osaka's grid-like network should be good, but there are some lines, especially the latest addition in the east, the Imazatosuji Line, that carries probably only a quarter of the passengers that use the Midosuji Line; and it was built in a rather scaled-down form. To give it more reason to exit, it should at least be extended to represent a sort of outer semi-circle line.

Midosuji Line's northbound Umeda station, not just during rush hour!

Kyobashi station, on the Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Line, one of the two linear metro lines

The Imazatosuji Line (or line 8 as it is internally known, too) is one of two of these linear-motor metro lines, the other being the Moscow Line (I call it that because it has a Moscow-style silly excessive name which reads as Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Line!). But as I said in previous blogs, I don't like those linear metros, I don't see the savings and the advantages. As disadvantages, the cars are smaller (though not really much smaller than a Berlin large!-profile train), and they rattle excessively. So if a small-scale metro is what they want, I'd go for the Copenhagen-style driverless type, because at least you can provide a very frequent service and save a lot on driver's wages.

Indeed, the Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Line has an absurdly long name, especially as the other lines at least for locals seem quite logical, as they refer to the main street the line runs along in the city centre, so this one could simply be the Nagahori Line. Station architecture is quite functional like everywhere in Japan, the overall appearance is more Berlinesque than in Tokyo, less shiny, though no graffiti, of course.

Kyobashi station - some murals add a little extra design, here cherry blossoms...

"New Tram" on ramp towards Cosmosquare

Luckily, the Nanko Port Town Line is now fully integrated into the Subway system, so no extra ticket is required. It connects with the Chuo Line at Cosmosquare in a bi-level station, the Chuo Line on the lower and one floor up you'll find the "New Tram", as it is also known. The funny thing about this driverless guided system is that the cars look like shrunken metro cars; other such systems have stylish or futuristic designs, this one has a Japanese metro car design. As it links two metro lines, a trip is always worthwhile to enjoy the view over this redevelopment area. At the other end, the Nanko Line terminates in an elevated station, but it's directly connected to the underground mezzanine of the Yotsubashi Line via stairs and long escalators.

One day I was joined by German expat Oliver M. and we headed for the Osaka Monorail, which despite its name, I think, runs mostly outside Osaka on a tangential route through the northern suburbs. It could be the only monorail system with a branch line, but I'm not quite sure now. Like Kitakyushu, this is a conventional straddle-beam monorail, and the ride is quite smooth. With a train every 10 minutes it could actually run more frequently as it is well patronised. Before you get on it, you have to pay some additional fare also for any line that takes you to a monorail station, as the Subway 1-Day Pass will not reach that far, although the Midosuji Line actually intersects with the Monorail at its northern end, Senri-Chuo. But as this is Japan, the last few stations on the red line are not proper Subway, so for a few stations more you'll need to pay an extra. But you could do that as you exit the Subway gates at Senri-Chuo, where the interchange is actually quite long, and through the typical shopping mall. We took a Keihan train from their centrally located Oebashi station, and this left us at the Monorail's eastern terminus.

The Monorail junction at the Expo Memorial Park is quite interesting, as if it had been laid out for the northern branch to be the main line. So now, despite a grade-separated junction (I wonder what a flat monorail junction would look like), trains from the northern branch that terminate on the central "track" of the 3-track station, have to cross the main "track". During certain times, those trains continue to Senri-Chuo, and then they use the outer platform edges here.

 Old-fashioned rolling stock on Osaka Loop Line

A few words on the JR suburban services: they are one step ahead of Tokyo and have assigned letters to their routes, a letter which is even clearly shown on trains, which already made my life a bit easier. The loop line, for example is O, the main line from Kobe via Osaka to Kyoto is A, or the underground Tozai Line is H. It is still confusing sometimes, because a train can switch from A to H, for example, or the loop is used by other services, too, but I would consider it a big step forward. Unlike in Tokyo, the Loop Line shares tracks with other trains, which (being not too familiar with the outer branches) seem to loop around Osaka and then continue on one of the branches, like starting at Tennoji, looping counterclockwise back to Tennoji and out towards the southeast.

JR Tozai Line: Osakajokitazume station (only station without platform gates), with train displaying 'A' destination (main line to Kobe)

Although it is on my UrbanRail.Net map, I wasn't really too aware of the Tozai Line (East-West Line), maybe because it doesn't really play the role such a Passante is supposed to play. There is a train every 7 minutes, and during off-peak the trains are not empty, but nothing like the Osaka Loop Line either, which is pretty busy at all times. In fact, many people coming in from the east, change at Kyobashi to the ring line. At the huge Osaka/Umeda hub, the Tozai Line's station is near, but carries a different name, Kitashinchi, so people may not perceive it as part of the complex, maybe it should be called Umeda minami (South Umeda) to be in line with the adjacent Subway stations. And at Nishi Fukushima, strangely it does not provide proper interchange with the loop line station Fukushima, which is only one block away. A pedestrian tunnel should not be so difficult to build, considering that a square mile around Osaka station is all subterranean malls. And even in the station and on the surface, the existence of the other station is not clearly signed.

By the way, while trying to do that transfer, I found a crowd outside Fukushima station: I felt a kind of satisfaction when I learned that operation on the entire loop had collapsed due to a power failure! Who would have expected that in this perfect railway land?

Regarding maps, Osaka is not too good. When you ask, they hand out A4-sized sheets with the map printed in English on one side, and in Japanese on the other side. The letter type used sometimes makes it difficult to read the map. The maps posted inside stations are much better. What is quite confusing, is what is proper Subway and what is outside the day pass area. On the northern Midosuji Line, the stations are still numbered the same way, but shown in a different style, the same with the eastern Chuo Line, but this difference is not explained. Connecting Hankyu routes on the Sakaisuji Line, however, are shown in a different style.

Tram upgrading going on at Tennoji terminus

I don't want to say much about Osaka's remaining Streetcar system (Hankai Line), what I saw was rather pathetic. At Ebisucho, hardly anyone was waiting for the next tram (20-minute headway) during rush hour, and when I got to Tennoji, I found a very "Eastern European" terminus, but next to it they were finishing a new terminus, plus several hundreds of metres were rebuilt, probably opening in a few months. But again like in Melbourne, the terminus is a single stub, so like now, trams may have to wait until they can actually get into the terminus to let people get off. This line was actually rather busy on a late morning, so I rode it out to Kaminoki, from where I took a Nankai train back into their busy Namba terminus.

Previous stop: KOBE | Next stop: KYOTO


Osaka Subway at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)

JAPAN - Kobe Subway & Guided Systems

Subway train at Tanigami terminus, 7 km beyond the line's actual terminus

While in Osaka for a total of five nights, I went on a daytrip to nearby Kobe (28 April 2016). Osaka and Kobe are linked by three parallel railways, so I had to make my choice. As I had already been on some Hankyu trains, I decided to take a Hanshin train, also because it would take me directly to the Rokko Liner, one of the two automatic guided transit systems I wanted to check out. Still in the morning rush hour (yes, trains also get pretty packed in the outbound direction) I jumped on a Limited Express at Umeda, realising later inside the car that actually all trains stop at Uozaki, where transfer to the Rokko Liner is provided via an encased elevated walkway.

Rokko Liner at Sumiyoshi terminus

Although the weather was looking rather horrible and not inviting to leave a station to take pictures from outside, I still decided to get a combined 1-day ticket for Rokko and Port Liner for 1200 Yen. Having looked at the options on the internet the day before, this was not too difficult at the machine, because this is the first system I find in Japan where ticket offices are not permanently staffed. Again, if someone wanted to just ride the train it would probably be enough to get the cheapest ticket, ride to the end of the line and then back to the other end, Sumiyoshi, which is an interchange with the JR line. Trains were running every few minutes and were quite busy. Although the last stop is called Marine Park, there is not much there, but the view from the elevated route is quite nice, especially the harbour crossing with its red suspension bridge where the guideways for either direction diverge to run alongside car lanes on the outer side of the bridge structure. And while the other stations have a simple, though rather wide island platform, the staton south of this bridge, Island Kitaguchi, has a sort of V-shaped platform. The stations are numbered R01-R06, and can also be identified by a symbol, like in Fukuoka. The symbol's pale colour is also visible in the line diagram above the platform screen doors, but this colour is not seen elsewhere in the station.

Portliner approaching Naka-koen

Technologically, the Rokko Liner as well as the Port Liner are similar to Yurikamome in Tokyo, i.e. a driverless train or rubber tyres. Like in Hiroshima, the ride is not bad, but could be smoother. Inside, the cars feel too small, as they only have a very narrow gangway between carriages, not really an open-space design.

While the Rokko Liner operates in the eastern suburbs of Kobe, the longer Port Liner actually starts at Kobe's main transport hub Sannomiya, right next to the JR station and near the Hankyu station, the underground Hanshin station and the two subway stations. The Port Liner uses rather new rolling stock in 6-car formation, whereas the Rokko Liner only has four cars in each train. Initially both systems had a similar route length, with the Port Liner running in an anti-clockwise loop around the new development area on Port Island. Later a branch was added, which has become the main line. Maybe 2 out of 3 trains go to the airport, with the other one doing the loop and returning to Sannomiya. The Port Liner is pretty slow on its first section as it winds its way through some elevated motorway junctions before it catches full speed across the harbour. As a result of its expansion, most stations have side platforms (as initially on the loop they only had a platform on one side). Naka Koen has three platforms, i.e. two side platforms on the same level on the main route, plus another half-island platform on top of the main inbound track for trains returning from the loop. The inbound guideways merge only north of Naka Koen station on the approach to the harbour crossing. At either end of the main line, trains can switch to either side before entering the station, there are no sidings beyond the termini. At Kobe Airport they seem to normally use the southern guideway. On the loop, Naka Futo actually features an island platform, too, I suppose the eastern track is only used by trains entering from the depot. As with the Rokko Liner, despite the new trains, the ride is a bit humpy, the concrete guideway showing its age and having been repaired in some sections, so again, a bit like a bus on an irregular roadway. Stations here are numbered P01 etc, and the numbers are even announced in English along with the station name.

Hanshin train terminating at Kobe's Sannomiya underground station

Before exploring the Subway proper, a short note on Kobe's Passante, a railway tunnel running rather parallel to the main Subway line, the Kobe Kosoku Line, which was built by a third-sector company, but is shared by three different private railways, the Sanyo, Hanshin and Hankyu Railways. Together they provide quite a metro-style service. Adding Kasuganomichi on the Hanshin route, there are nine underground stations in sequence. The Hankyu route joins the Hanshin route just before Kosoku Kobe station.

Sanyo train at Kokosu Kobe on Kobe's "Passante"

Older Subway train at Shin-Nagata

So while the suburban lines join to form a metro in the city centre, Kobe's main Subway line has a rather suburban character, especially along its western leg, the Seishin part of the Seishin-Yamate Line. Distances between stations here are rather long and many sections are on the surface, though interrupted by some tunnels due to the hilly terrain in the Kobe hinterland. The line colour green is also visible in the livery of all the trains of which there are at least three different generations, all looking a bit dated now. I was quite impressed by the design of the first station I saw, namely Itayado, with its wall panels imitating wood:

Itayado station on Seishin-Yamate Line

 Most other stations also have the flair of the 1970s or 1980s, some could do with a little refurbishment. The last station on the western leg, Seishin Chuo, somehow reminded me of Stockholm, a partly underground layout with two island platforms and a medium-sized shopping centre on top with a big concrete square in the middle. On one side there is a large bus terminal. Towards the other end, Sannomiya seems to have been refurbished not too long ago, with whitish enamelled panels providing a well-illuminated space. Here the respective platforms lie on top of each other (to Shin-Kobe on the upper level). Although not really included in my Subway-only day pass I had acquired for 820 Yen (by the way, this is not available from the ticket machine, just from the person at the counter!), I rode the train all the way out from Shin-Kobe to Tanigami, a 7 km tunnel through a mountain range. As long as you don't exit the station no one cares. You can actually change to a Shintetsu train at the same platform without having to pass through a ticket gate.

 Subway logo - white U on blue blackground looks familiar....

While the Seishin-Yamate Line is a standard metro (using a kind of Madrid-style tram-like overhead catenary), the newer Kaigan Line is another of those linear motor metros I have now already seen in Fukuoka and Osaka. Again, the trains rattle too much for a modern metro system, a bit like a cheap low-floor tram with loose wheels. This one is also manually driven and has no platform screen doors, but unlike the Seishin-Yamate Line, which still has a conductor in the rear cabin managing the doors, the Kaigan Line features one-man operation. The easternmost of just four cars is reserved for women at all times! The Seishin-Yamate Line has such a car somewhere in the middle. I haven't seen it in rush hour, but during the day it was very little used. Like the Nanakuma Line in Fukuoka, it is badly integrated with other transport at Sannomiya, again you have to walk through a shopping mall to transfer. So, again, I wonder why they chose this technology instead of making it compatible with other lines.

Shin-Nagata, the nicest station on the Kaigan Line

In Kobe, unfortunately it is impossible to get proper maps, not even for the two Subway lines alone. A railway network map showing all different services is urgently needed here.

Previous stop: HIROSHIMANext stop: OSAKA


Kobe at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

JAPAN - Hiroshima Streetcars & Astram

For any urban rail enthusiat, Hiroshima is certainly one of the highlights of a Japan tour. Here you can find the country's largest "Streetcar" system, but also a single-line metro-style guided transit system.

Evening parade of older trams at the railway station terminal

Let's start with the trams as this is what you see first when arriving in Hiroshima by train. My first impression was, it feels like Melbourne, old and new trams entering a restricted terminus one after the other and hurrying to leave again to let the next cars arrive. The terminus actually has three stub tracks, but rather short ones, dating from the period when only short trams were used. Line 5 enters the northern track (the one closest to the station building) and also accepts passengers there. Lines 1, 2 and 6, however, use the other two stubs to drop off passengers (with a mobile fare collector helping on the platform), but they pick up passengers at a point further east (where line 5 also has to pass through without stopping). With lots of tourists coming to Hiroshima especially for the atomic bomb memorial sites, this is a busy tram terminal at all times.

Paris-style livery on Hiroshima's long low-floor trams

Japanese product for lines with less demand

But before we can board a tram we need to get a ticket, and here's good news for all foreign visitors: at the information desk at the tram terminal you can get a 3-day pass for just 1000 Yen (8 EUR), while a normal day pass for the tram would cost 600 Yen. The tourist pass also includes buses and the ferry from the end of tram line 2 to the Miyajima Island, a popular tourist destination. But it does not cover JR trains or the Astram Line (see below). For normal people, the tram, which is known as Hiroden (Hiroshima Electric Railway), there is actually a flat fare within the city of 160 Yen per ride (American-style transfer tickets are handed out on exiting), just line 2 beyond Nishi-Hiroshima has an additional fare. The biggest problem with fares in Hiroshima is the way it is collected. On older trams, you are supposed to enter through the rear doors (tapping in with IC Cards, and exit at the front by showing your ticket to the driver, paying the cash fare or tapping out. The problem arises when the trams get too full, and they do. So anybody getting off at one of the intermediate stops has to squeeze through the crowds to make their way to the front and get off. A very unpleasant and actually stupid procedure, in Europe I think only known in Amsterdam. But with the honesty of the Japanese and a few random inspections it should be possible to introduce a sort of honour system so that all doors can be used to get on and off. The situation is slightly better on the new multi-articulated trams because they have a conductor at the rear, so you can choose whether to move forward or backward in order to exit.

Typical super-narrow platforms

The Melbourne feel of the system is also apparent in the tram stops, of which there are plenty, maybe too many for example on the main east-west route. Most of them have platforms, hardly any boarding from street level, but those platforms are mostly so narrow, they would be considered dangerous in other parts of the world. Hardly two people can stand next to each other, which causes some sort of congestion with passengers getting off, those getting on, and those waiting for another tram obstructing the platform anyway. Otherwise the stops have all necessary information panels, the name is written in big letters, and what's best, like on Japanese metro systems, the stops are numbered, which is quite useful for foreigners, and also helps to classify the photos. As a trunk route, M1 to M39 (M for Miyajima) corresponds to line 2, other routes carry a letter for the area they run through or to, Y for Yokogawa, etc. Most tourists could thus take a direct line 2 tram from M1 (Railway station) to M10 (Atomic Bomb Dome). There are 8 lines, and these are shown properly in different colours on the abundant maps. The line colour is also used on some next-tram indicators.

Older articulated high-floor tram mostly running on line 2

Modern colour indicators at some stops

Typical information panel at stops

Although they call the system "Streetcar" in English and although it runs on street level, it generally has its own lanes, so the trams don't get stuck in traffic jams, but still offer a rather low average speed mainly because of rather long traffic light cycles (a feature I had also observed in Australia). So although they actually travel fast where possible, they often stop for a long time, there is no traffic light preemption. The condition of the track is rather reminiscent of some Eastern European tram systems, it is still operable, but could do with a complete renewal in many places. The tram fleet has already been renewed, but you can still see some of the very old vehicles, not yet branded as a special tourist attraction, but probably soon. 

Inbound Combino at Nishi Hiroshima, end of urban section

The Siemens Combinos are mostly on line 2 mixed with older high-floor articulated trams, and they run quite smoothly on the long interurban line, which has a railway-type alignment. The other long low-floor tram is a Japanese product, although it appears to be a copy of a Paris Citadis, even the RATP corporate colours are included. Then there are shorter Piccolos, which look like Pesa trams, so quite a variety. Some of the older high-floor articulated vehicles have been refurbished and now carry a "Green Liner" logo, so they will remain in service for some time still. In addition to the air-conditioning, the trams also have blinds, which is certainly good when the sun is too strong, but which obstructs the curious visitor's view...

Rubber-tyred metro system
Besides the relatively large tram system, Hiroshima also has one metro line, the so-called Astram, which technologically is similar to the Yurikamome in Tokyo in that it is a guided transit system on rubber-tyres, but unlike Tokyo's, it is manually driven. I explored it on a Sunday afternoon, so I can't tell you much about its normal usage. When I was there, it was not too busy, with trains running every 10 minutes, and only every 20 minutes on the outer stretch. The problem with Astram is that it is not very useful for short inner-city trips, maybe a bit more since the Shin-Hakushima station was added last year as this provides interchange with the busy JR Sanyo Line (yes, this line was even busy in the outbound direction on a Sunday morning!). So JR passengers can now avoid the overcrowded trams from Hiroshima station into the city centre. Otherwise, Astram just connects the city centre to the northern suburbs, so I assume that it does get crowded in peak hours, but is not too busy during off-peak.

 Astram viaduct beyond the outer terminus

Now that I have also seen a few monorail systems, I don't really see the advantages of such a rubber-tyred train, especially when a driver is used. The ride is certainly not smoother than on monorails, rather worse, a bit like a bus running on a motorway, with gentle sections, but then also a lot of humps. But compared to, for example, the Kitakyushu Monorail, Astram's viaduct is much more substantial, i.e. construction costs must be much higher and the visual impact is much stronger, as the elevated structure is just the same you would need for a proper metro.

Funnily, the otherwise rather basic stations, are colour-coded, on line diagrams and within the station itself. What you see from the train, however, are just orange doors! This is rather absurd, as colour-coding was originally (some 100 years ago...) meant to help passengers identify their station, but this is not the case here. But it would be the easiest of all possible improvements to paint the platform screen doors outside in the same colour as inside! And while they are at it, they could choose stronger colours anyway:

Ushita - typical Astram station, here in turquoise-blue

Pink is the colour for the Hondori terminus in the city centre

The original three underground stations are not bad, each in a different colour, too, but all a bit small. The most spectacular station is certain the newly added Shin-Hakushima with its high vaulted roof (the station is located below the surface, but somehow daylight comes down to the platform). The platform edges form a V, as the tracks diverge heading north towards the ramp under the JR railway viaduct.

Shin-Hakushima, a station added in 2015 to provide interchange with JR services

The trains also boast a strong orange on the outside, inside they are a bit pale with grey upholstered longitudinal seats (some have apparently been refurbished recently), making them appear a bit old-fashioned. The four cars are interconnected, but just with a rather narrow gangway:

Farewise, Astram is one of the bizarre cases of Japanese transport systems. While a day pass for the entire tram system is just 600 Yen, that for Astram alone costs 930 Yen! But considering that a trip from end to end (18.4 km) already costs 480 Yen, it's not that bad for a real rail enthusiats... Or get on at Hondori, ride the entire line to the end and back to Kencho-mae without getting outside for a photo, you may only be charged 190 Yen!

Still in the Hiroshima area, there is a funny cable suspension railway, i.e. hauled by a continuous cable which the cabins grip on to, it climbs from JR Seno station like the wrongly-named Chiba Monorail (actually a suspension railway) to a nice residential area. Biggest problem here, the system does not accept IC Cards from other places and the ticket machine does not speak English! So I pressed the HELP button, and said "Can I buy a ticket", so they called the ticket office next to me to wake up the station clerk who had apparently been resting behind a folding screen (I could have shouted, but thought it would be unpolite), so he came out and helped me to get a 160 Yen ticket for a fun-ride up. Down, I managed to get a ticket by myself... The ride itself provides a nice view, but the technology is not convincing, shaking a lot, actually a proper aerial cable car swings more pleasantly.

Previous Stop: KITAKYUSHU | Next Stop: KOBE


Hiroden (Hiroshima Electric Railway)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

JAPAN - Kitakyushu Monorail

On the Shinkansen, Kitakyushu is only 16 minutes from Fukuoka, so I could have explored this city's monorail system easily on a daytrip, but in the end I decided for the locker option to continue straight to Hiroshima the same evening (22 April 2016).

Monorail train entering Kokura station on level +1

The bad thing about the Kitakyushu Monorail, there is no day ticket. So I had to use my PASMO stored-value ticket each time I wanted to get out and back into the system. I don't know for how long you could actually remain inside the paid area, and for example ride the whole line in both directions and get off at Heiwadori, a short walk from the railway station? Would the system understand that you only travelled between two stations? Or would it get suspicious and send you to fare adjustment? Has anyone tried? And what if you actually exit where you first entered? Anyway, to avoid problems I tap in and out as any real Japanese would do.

The good thing, you can use any of the IC cards available across the country and also add value to it. For someone who lives in Germany where each city not only has its own fare system, but also a completely different philosophy about fares and zones and subzones, using just the same card all over the country is like heaven. Especially for the occasional riders, it is so much easier, as you don't really have to worry about fares, as long as there is some credit on your card, and if not, you can always add some.

Monorail map

The monorail line initially started a few hundred metres south of the railway station, but was eventually extended, and the first station is now perfectly integrated into the railway station complex, with trains one level above the main lobby, and actually visible from there. Route diagrams are displayed in all stations, but there is no map to take away. While in other places there are always some leaflets to pick up, Kitakyushu has nothing about the monorail, it seems.

Typical entrance to monorail station, here at Tanga 

Opened in 1985, this is actually the most dated-looking of all urban rail lines I have seen in Japan so far. Especially the accesses to the stations look quite run-down, whereas the mezzanine and platform levels are o.k. Just the terminus at the railway station and the original terminus Heiwadori have an island platform, all other stations have side platforms, and though longer, stations have a similar layout to those in Naha. Here, there is mostly (or always?) also an escalator down from the platform, besides a lift and stairs, of course. Between street level and mezzanine, there is normally one up-escalator and stairs on either side of the street. One could say that the stations are almost designless, or have a very basic and plain design, somehow similar to Vienna's elevated stations, but without the elegance the line colours add to the stations in Vienna. The basic tone is cream, and walking down from the platform to the mezzanine in one station reminded me of those staircases you find in hospitals or department stores no one uses because everybody takes the lift.

Typical monorail platform, here at Kawaraguchi-Mihagino 

Jono station seen through driver's window

The lowest point of the viaduct is at Jono station, where the mezzanine is actually at street level, and this is also a good photo spot. Otherwise the viaduct is at a normal height, not excessively high, and you get a good view of the neighbourhoods the line runs through as well as of the mountains that surround the city. Taking pictures from the end of the platform is not ideal, because their is a glass wall with thin black lines on it. You can get decent shots with the train entering on the other side, but again, be careful not to be hit by the train entering in your platform. The monorail does not have platform gates, just a fence, but the area where the train doors are, is open. The train floor does not exactly match the platform height, so one of the middle doors has a gentle ramp to allow wheelchair users to get on without the help of others.

The stations have, however, one singular features, yet another system to announce when the next train will arrive (there is a basic 10-minute headway). First I was wondering what this sign was, but then understood it quite intuitively:

Next-train indicator: the next train is now approaching the previous station

With the original terminus at Heiwadori, the switches between the two beams are actually located to the south of that station. So between Tanga and Heiwadori, the trains alternate between eastern and western beam to continue into Kokura station, and then return on the same track, which somehow limits the minimum headway to what it is now. There is a layover of some 4 minutes, so with a continuous driver change as done on some metro systems, this could be reduced and thus also more trains offered if necessary. But this monorail is certainly not one of Japan's busiest urban rail lines, at least I haven't seen any train getting full, always easy to get a seat. It will certainly have its rush hour, too. Almost all trains were running with full adverts.

Regular livery vs. advert

Viaduct south of Tanga station

Viaduct near southern terminus at Kikugaoka

Movable beam section next to southern terminus at Kikugaoka (normally only the departure platform is used)

The ride of the four-car trains is decent, not too smooth, but it doesn't shake either. I assume that these are the first-generation cars, so they have been running for 30 years now. I wonder whether there are plans to replace them.

 Inbound Chikutetsu tram arriving at Chikuhu-Katsuki

As I had time, I took a JR train to Kurosaki, to see the Chikutetsu line to Nogata, this is a kind of interurban tramway running through the western parts of Kitakyushu (which has quite a large area of merged cities). It runs about every 12-15 minutes on the inner section, but suddenly I was stranded on the outer part where there is a train only every half hour during off-peak times. They have just introduced low-floor cars, making the line look more like a tram line than before. I only saw one in service, maybe it's the only one they have. Typically you have to get on through the rear door and exit by the driver who checks tickets or collects fares.

New Chikutetsu tram announced inside older vehicles

Previous stop: FUKUOKA | Next stop: HIROSHIMA


Kitakyushu Monorail (Official Site)

Kitakyushu Monorail at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)