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)


  1. Thanks for writing this! One small nit: you mention "Nishi-Hakushima" at one point, but it's actually Shin-Hakushima. (Although the Astram Line has a planned extension to Nishi-Hiroshima station as well...)

  2. I'm really looking forward to your expertise in your series on Japanese urban rail - as someone living in this part of the world I'm quite aware English-language literature on Asian railways is seriously lacking.
    Just wondering though if you'll be visiting Okayama, where there's a small tram system (and a high-intensity DMU operation on a freight line)?

  3. Great pics ! what's the track layout at hondori station ? ..tail tracks or do the trains cross the their chosen platform before entering the station ? thanks !

    1. Entering the station, the train changed over to the departure track at least when I rode it, but I'm not sure whether there is also a crossover beyond the station.

  4. About the fare system, nowhere in Japan does a honour system exist. The only exception that I am aware of is Toyama Light Rail, which has a flat fare, and where you pay when you get off at the driver - and the exception is that to speed up the process, passengers using an IC card can also get off at another door just by touching the card reader at that door. However, this second card reader is only operating during the morning rush hour on weekdays.

    Why does Japan have no honour system? Because transport operators are afraid that they may lose some income. I have talked to several people, and many know of the efficient European system, but if there is the question of efficiency versus 100% income (as opposed to 95% or so in open systems), they prefer to get 100%. It is less efficient, but the main inefficiency of Japanese tram systems, as you have correctly observed, are the traffic lights.

    The Astram Line is a result of the strong population growth and economic effects of the 1970s and 1980s. At that time cities were growing fast, and it was thought that trams were not capable of transporting a large number of passengers. Full subways were too expensive for medium-sized cities like Hiroshima, and so these AGTs were built. But stalled growth since 1990, bad connections to other transit systems, high fares and good roads (note that for most of the route the Astram is built above a 4-lane street, which is basically free of traffic-jams) all lead to few passengers, and so nowadays no new such systems are being built in Japan. There are plans for the Astram to build an extension from Chiiki-Koen to Nishi-Hiroshima, but not sure if that will ever happen.


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