Wednesday, 11 May 2016

JAPAN - Sendai Subway

Westbound Tozai Line train crossing the Hirose River

Sendai, just like Sapporo, was initially meant to be in the first of a 2-volume series about Japan, and this city somehow influenced our publication schedule as only a few months ago, they opened their second metro line, which for the foreseeable future will also remain the last completely new line to open in Japan. We thought that this opening would therefore be an ideal time to start with this series of books. As my co-author Andrew Phipps had just recently been there, I put my travel dates in spring 2016 so I would be able to cover the new Tozai Line. Later, I decided that we'd split the series into three volumes instead, and so Sendai will be part of the "North & Centre" volume in 2017, leaving more space for the numerous rail systems in the Tokyo area in the first volume (June 2016).

I calculated a full day for photographing in Sendai, and that should be enough, as besides the two Sendai Subway lines and some JR services there is nothing around here. The first thing you notice in Sendai is its Subway logo which sits on top of all entrances or is attached to buildings. For Austrians like me or Germans, the combination of two capital S's always evokes other associations, but that's what Sendai Subway suggests. I took a quick stroll through the awakening city centre when the extensive shopping galleries were just opening - by the way, unlike Osaka (Umeda), passengers are mostly delivered to a network of elevated walkways rather than underground shopping malls when they leave the railway station. I then entered the N09 station, i.e. Hirose-dori on the older Namboku Line (here you can sometimes also read Nanboku) and got my day pass easily from the ticket machine. Right next to these, I was surprised by a huge vaulted mural depicting mythological figures:

 Hirose-dori station on Namboku Line 

I took the next southbound train to check out the interchange at Sendai station between the two lines. The Tozai Line was signed well enough, but I was surprised that I was sent upstairs to the mezzanine, then along a long corridor to escalators which led me down to the end of the Tozai platform. So apparently, despite being located one station basically on top of the other in a + shape, there is no direct connection between the two platform levels. It may be possible via the lift, though, I'll have to have a closer look at the station layout map which was available at many Subway stations. Later I realised that Sendai station on the Namboku Line, i.e. N10, is actually the nicest station on that line, with a green indirectly illuminated vaulted ceiling along the middle of the island platform. I wonder whether this was an enhancement made in the course of the construction of the new Tozai Line which features similar design elements:

Namboku Line platform at Sendai station

After having visited almost all metros of all different technologies (only Sapporo left), I was quite positively surprised by the design of the new Tozai Line. All stations have some appealing elements, in most cases it is a special ceiling structure using indirect illumination, but also varying types of wall cladding and in some cases stylish murals in the intermediate level. So while all other underground stations all over Japan were rather functional, though still quite pleasant places, here for the first time I had the feeling that someone has actually given a special consideration to station design: 

Yagiyama Zoological Park - western terminus of the Tozai Line

A feature unique to Sendai, which had been in use on the Namboku Line, has also been implemented on the Tozai Line, i.e. a different colour for gates and station signs depending on the direction of the train. So all westbound platform edges are green, those east are orange; the line colour is light-blue. I wonder whether those colours were chosen at random or whether they mean anything intuitively to the locals. Especially on the western leg, the line runs through rather hilly terrain, so International Center station lies just below the surface right after the bridge, while other stations lie as deep as level -5. The underground stations are well-ventilated, in fact almost too cold to hang around for a while, and to make them less spooky, there is modern classical music (which can easily get on one's nerves...). As not many people from overseas will have had a chance to see this line yet, here some examples of various stations from west to east:

 T01 Yagiyama Zoological Park - western terminus of the Tozai Line
 T02 Abayama - serving the university
 T03 Kawauchi
 T07 Sendai
 T07 Sendai
 T08 Miyagino-dori
 T10 Yakushido
 T12 Rokuchonome
 T13 Arai 

Just after noon you can get quite nice shots from the station square above with the trains entering or leaving International Center station. Otherwise only Sendai (T07) station allows the typical "leaning over the platform gates" shot of a train, as most other platforms are just long enough for a 4-car train (though there is an unfinished platform section behind a wall in case a fifth car needs to be added). From the outside, the trains are pretty ugly anyway... Inside they are nice, though smaller than those on the Namboku Line, as like in Fukuoka or Kobe, this is once again a linear-motor metro line with a smaller profile. So, besides Osaka and Tokyo, there are a total of three cities in Japan, which have just two metro lines, but these two each use different technology. I wonder if all calculations were done properly? Usually you reduce costs by having a larger system with a single technology, by sharing depots, maintenance staff, etc.

Inside a Tozai Line car

Right now, it does not seem that the Tozai Line will need a fifth car soon. Besides a few students going and coming from the University at Aobayama station, the trains were barely used during noon. Like the Namboku Line, the Tozai Line operates every 7-8 minutes during off-peak hours. At either end of the line, buses are supposed to connect, but there was hardly any movement visible. The Arai terminus near the line's depot lies in a rather undeveloped area, although some housing construction was visible. But all in all, I wondered whether a full-scale metro (well, it's a down-scaled metro anyway) was needed here, or whether some sort of light rail, maybe with an underground portion through the city centre, would have done the job too. But such intermediate systems do not exist in Japan so far. On the other hand surprising that they didn't simply erect an ugly viaduct through the less densely-built up areas, but built the line mostly underground. Besides the bridge across the Hirose River next to International Center station, there is another short bridge structure, but I think it is hardly accessible through a forested area; and if you manage to get there, you'll find a sort of modern truss bridge, so no good spot for an easy train picture. Like other linear metros, the Tozai Line uses an overhead catenary. It is operated by a driver in ATO mode, but even on straight sections does not speed up too much, and in curves the max. speed was mostly marking 40 km/h, although the train ran even slower despite proper canting.

After exploring the Tozai Line in depth, I had a quick look at the JR underground route, the Senseki Line which starts in an underground station Aoba-dori right in the city centre (and this station is quite directly linked to the Namboku Line, both forming a sort of L-complex). This JR line has a total of five underground stations, all look similar, but each with a different colour. Off-peak there is a train every 15 minutes, so I took one out from Sendai to Kozurushinden and then back to Aoba-dori. 

JR underground platform at Sendai station

The western leg of the present Tozai Line is a logical continuation of this rail tunnel, so I wonder whether originally these two projects were related. Inside the JR stations there is a huge system map for the suburban services, but this was the first of its kind not to include English station names. The same was true for the service-pattern maps, although inside the trains these showed English transcriptions, too.

After this it was finally time to ride the Namboku Line properly. First I took the northern leg, came through Asahigaoka station which allows a view out into a park on the western side, and then got off at Kuromatsu to take some pictures on the open section just north of that station. In fact, the line remains on the surface almost to the northern end, and possibly some shots are possible from street level between Yaotome and Izumi-Chuo, but I was getting too tired. 

N01 Izumi-chuo - northern terminus of Namboku Line

On the Namboku Line they also use just 4-car trains, but all platforms are fully fitted out, so you can get those over-the-fence shots everywhere. Otherwise, as said before, the stations are plain and monotonous, with beige and brown tones dominating. The walls are mostly clad with beige bricks. So I picked a few as samples to take pictures and rode to the southern end, which is also a surface terminus with tracks leading to the depot. But the sun was getting too low already for good photos, so I changed at Nagamachi to take a JR train back to Sendai station and finish the day early.

Despite having just added a new metro line, there are no nice system maps available. The only thing they hand out are huge bus maps which let you recognise where the Subway runs along.

What I noticed most strongly in Sendai is the large amount of old buses. In this respect, Japan seems to be decades behind Europe and North America. High-floor buses we can hardly remember they once existed on urban lines, are rather common here, and not to think about the diesel emissions. Wasn't Tokyo once associated with climate change and how we should save the world? 

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  1. I lived in Sendai in 1991-1993 and visited regularly, during the endless construction of the Tozai line. One of the reasons for the delays was a protracted argument about the alignment and connections at Sendai station, and, as you suspected, whether the line should be independen, as built, or a continuation of the Senseki.

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