Thursday, 21 April 2016

JAPAN - Fukuoka Subway

I spent a day and a half (20/21 April 2016) in Fukuoka to explore its Subway and a bit of the suburban railways, too.

Compared to Tokyo, the Fukuoka Subway feels more European, especially because of the train length, with 6 cars rather similar to what I am used to. On the newer Nanakuma Line trains consist of only 4 cars. Also the level of usage is not as excessive as in Tokyo, in fact the Hakozaki Line seemed pretty empty during morning off-peak hours. And the system uses a proper logo, a white f on blue background, in italics, so in a way it suggests F for Fukuoka, but also seems to include an S for Subway.

Outbound Subway train continuing beyond Meinohama terminus

Let's start with the older lines, the Kuko (Airport) Line and the Hakozaki Line, which is in fact a branch of the first. In a Japanese fashion, the Hakozaki Line is shown as a separate line, although about every other train continues west on the Kuko Line to Nishijin or Meinohama. Some maps show a thinner blue line next to the normal orange line, which depicts quite well that it is a mixture of separate line and joint operation. Interestingly, the junction station Nakasu-Kawabata actually consists of two stations on top of each other, so the Hakozaki Line actually merges with the Kuko Line just east of Tenjin station. So transferring passengers who wish to go from the Kuko Line's eastern leg towards Kaizuka either have to go one level up (down in the opposite direction) or continue to Tenjin and change across the platform.

By the way, Subway maps are available to pick up at all stations, in a Japanese version and an English version, although the latter may not be waiting for you in all the stations. 

JR train at Hakata on Kuko Line

At the airport, the Subway station was only a very short walk from where I came out, getting a day pass for 620 Yen (Subway only) from a machine was easy. Trains run every 7 minutes during off-peak hours, and about every fourth train is a JR train that continues beyond Meinohama. With only one interoperating route, this is pretty clear here in Fukuoka. At the western end of the line, Meinohama, there are two island platforms, terminating trains seem to normally use the inbound track directly, so no reversing beyond the station. Interestingly, the indicators announce that this "train originates in this station", which is like saying "don't worry, you'll get a seat anyway", very nice. JR trains, however, use the outer tracks. If I have observed correctly, Subway trains may also continue on JR tracks. At Kaizuka, the Hakozaki Line is not interconnected with the Nishitetsu Kaizuka Line, although both lines are actually on the same level and have the same orientation, but I guess that this was not considered due to the lower demand on the outer line, where rather short trains operate less frequently, but it may be an option for the future, I assume.

Position of train on its approach to "This station"

The funniest feature I have detected in the Fukuoka Subway is the display of the position of the train on its approach. A similar service is provided in Brussels, even with several trains and their position visible. Here a small train is shown as it enters the previous station and then when it is between that and the station where you are waiting. Indicators also show which train provides a connection at Kaizuka, or that at Nakasu-Kawabata you can connect to the other line.

Station symbol with matching colour bar on Nanakuma Line

I was already familiar with the station symbols. This is a nice feature, although I wonder why it is necessary. In Mexico they said it is for people who can't read. Are there so many in Fukuoka? It will be interesting to study their origin more deeply, as some are quite obvious, but others may need some explanation. On these two lines, the colour assigned to the symbol was also used for some other station finishings, so adding a little colour to the otherwise rather sober designs. The stations are not ugly, but very functional and global style, could be in Germany in the 1980s too. They seem to have the right size, not too narrow, but not exaggeratedly spacious either. Needless to say that all are well-kept and also feature excellent toilets. Trains on these two lines look a bit dated, but probably will remain in service for a couple more years still.

The green Nanakuma Line is different in various aspects, although I don't quite understand why. They chose linear technology which is said to allow smaller tunnels, but I don't see much of a difference compared to other metros, and they chose 1435mm gauge as opposed to the typical Japanese 1067mm gauge, making the line incompatible with the rest. Without knowing its history, I would think that originally the Hakozaki Line and the Nanakuma Line were supposed to become a single line, which explains the separate stations at Nakasu-Kawabata; this would have given an X-shaped network. When the Nanakuma Line was built in the early 2000s, apparently an eastern extension towards Hakata was already considered, as the line turns sharply east just west of the current terminus (requiring trains to reverse beyond the station). So probably this intention was the reason why it was not linked up with the Hakozaki Line. Eventually this extension seems to be starting now, I saw some construction just being launched at the intermediate station near Canal City. This will partly alleviate one of the major flaws of the Fukuoka Subway system, the unacceptable interchange between the Kuko Line and the Nanakuma Line at Tenjin - you have to walk for some 500 m through an underground shopping mall. It's quite an elegant mall, though rather dark to make it look more stylish! When you come from the well-lit metro station it is like entering the real underworld... 

Quiet moment in the mall used to transfer between Kuko and Nanakuma Lines

But if you want to travel from A to B, you want to change trains as quickly and easily as possible and not find your way through a shopping centre. So the extension will at least bring people from the southwest directly to Hakata to catch a Shinkansen or allow them to change to the Kuko Line towards the airport much more easily. Anyway, if you really need to change trains at Tenjin, you have to exit through special gates, otherwise you'd be charged an extra fare:

Special gates for transferring passengers in green

The Nanakuma Line is a proper 'Green Line', I mean, the line colour is quite present, even on handrails, which made me think of Vienna's U4. Each station symbol also has a specific colour, but this is not reflected elsewhere within the station except for a colour stroke above the station name. Otherwise the stations all feature a standard design, although different materials were used for some wall cladding around staircases and escalator shafts. Just Yakuin-odori station has many animal motives on the otherwise blank platform gates to show the way to the zoo:

Nanakuma - standard station on the namesake line

This line is operated in full ATO-mode and this is more visible than elsewhere, because the driver, whose duties have been scaled down to train attendant, sits there in front of you in an open cabin, so you can watch every move he makes. At the terminus he closes the driving console, and people can actually sit in his place (which also means, that the drivers have to sit on a very basic, certainly not ergonomic seat!). 

A look over the driver's shoulders on the Nanakuma Line train

Just with one driver I observed that he kept to the same routines you can see with all Japanese train drivers, pointing in all directions, while others just pressed the door-closing button to move on. I suppose these trains were meant for driverless operation, but in the end they decided to keep the driver. They could install a separating wall, though, to give the driver a bit more privacy... The train runs smoothly, and features the best seats I have seen so far in Japan (well, they also look a bit like Berlin's S-Bahn seats...).

Inside a Nanakuma Line train

So while visual announcements are plenty and quite good, accoustic announcements in Fukuoka can get on your nerves after a while, because the lady has a rather unpleasant voice and speaks continuously. I don't know what she says, but it sounds very repetitive, and the single sentence intermingled in English is hard to grasp as it is spoken within the same monotonous monologue. It can't be the language, because I hadn't perceived it as unpleasant in other places, so it must be that voice.

By the way, Fukuoka also feels a bit American - the next-train indicators also display a message saying "If you see something suspicious, tell an official". In America, taking pictures inside a metro station is already suspicious, but I hope that in Japan they have mercy on us. Anyway, so far, no one has bothered me, everybody seems to be ignoring me, or pretend they do. However, when somebody told me that actually drivers and staff were smiling at you when they see you taking pictures, I think they were talking about Korea or China, because here every driver puts on a pokerface as if any kind of reaction would be disobeying the strict railway rules.

Older Nishitetsu rolling stock at Tenjin terminus

I also took the Nishitetsu Tenjin-Omuta Line, which heads south from Tenjin and intersects with the Nanakuma Line at Yakuin. The route is rather busy, offering local, limited express and express trains, so at Yakuin, a train stops every few minutes. The line still has lots of level crossings, but I saw that on some section they have started to put the line on a viaduct. I was a bit shocked by some rather dated stream-lined rolling stock on my way back from Futsukaichi on a limited express.

Previous stop: OKINAWA Naha Monorail | Next stop: KITAKYUSHU Monorail


Fukuoka at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)


  1. The Nanakuma Line trains reminded me of Munich Metro Class C and they are indeed both designed by Alexander Neumeister who also was responsible for the German high speed train ICE 3. This may explain the European-style seats!

  2. Robert nice subway. I wanted to let you know of a new development in my home town Montreal and I couldn't find a like to contact you.

    It's a new electric rail system coming soon

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