Thursday, 12 May 2016

JAPAN - Sapporo Subway & Streetcar

Tozai Line - Bus Center-mae station

My last stop on my extensive, but also intensive Japan metro tour was Sapporo. Travelling with a JR Rail Pass, I also came here by train from Sendai, but despite the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto having opened only a few weeks earlier, the train journey is still long and tiring. So, I'm glad to fly on the way back to Narita, from where I'm connecting directly with a flight to London and from there to Berlin.

Namboku Line (feat. T-shaped guide-rail) - Makomanai terminus 

To finish the trip with a little extra time, I calculated a total of three days for Sapporo. The first two were rather cloudy, partly rainy and cold, so an ideal weather to stay in the Subway for a while. The Subway's most distinctive feature, if you don't know it you might not even notice it immediately - it has rubber tyres! Why? I don't know really, because all possible advantages are not quite true. It is certainly not less noisy, in fact, when trains enter and leave the stations they are much noiser than for example the Berlin U-Bahn. When you travel on the train they are also noisy, which may come from the open gangways between cars (only a few have sliding glass doors). Do they run more smoothly than metros with steelwheel-on-rail cars? Not really! They run o.k., but nothing like floating. In fact they run a bit like metrocars which have not had their wheels properly maintained, so they are not 100% round. Unlike Lausanne, for example, there are no considerable gradients which would require additional adhesion. Maybe they accelerate a bit faster than normal trains, but that would be the only advantage I have observed. And this would not be Japan if all three lines had the same specifications! The Namboku Line differs from the other two by a T-shaped central guide-rail as well as third-rail power supply, whereas the other two lines, which are newer, have a simple I-shaped guide-rail and overhead catenary. Otherwise, I think the cars have the same width, which at 3m is rather wide. All the platforms were laid out for much longer trains, though, but now only 6-car and 7-car trains are in service on the Namboku and Tozai Lines, respectively, and just 4-car trains on the Toho Line. 

Original Subway test car on display under metro viaduct

By the way, at Jieitai-mae on the Namboku Line, there is a kind of museum under the metro viaduct; it was closed when I was there, but you can actually see many exhibits like old trams and the original metro prototype cars from the street.

At Odori in the heart of the city, the Namboku and Tozai Lines, both opened in the 1970s, form a proper cross-shaped interchange with the Tozai Line and its island platform on the lower level, and separate escalators and stairs leading to the respective side platforms of the Namboku Line above. The Toho Line, however, feels like an improvised add-on to the original system. With the grid layout of the city, it was built two blocks east and feels like the undesired little brother. While at Odori, the long corridor is rather lively, that at Sapporo station was pretty deserted when I walked through during late morning. The corridor as such is very wide, divided into three parallel sections, of which the central one is within the paid area. Being less busy than the older lines, the Toho Line has not yet been equipped with platform gates, instead, the short trains still have a conductor in the rear cabin! The conductor not just stretches his head out of the window, but keeps standing with the door open when the train departs and only closes it when it is past the boarding section of the exaggeratedly long platforms. The unused platform sections on all three lines are fully tiled, but more or less fenced off, although without any signs that you are not allowed to enter this area. So with these long platforms, a leaning-over-the-platform-gate photo is possible in almost all stations.

Toho Line - Motomachi - rear cabin conductor

Toho Line - Sakaemachi - excessive platform length

What distinguishes the Toho Line positively from the other two lines are its proper next-train indicators, the same you would find in most Japanese metros. I mean they don't show the minutes left for the next train, but the departure time plus a graphical indication where the next train currently is (funnily, this is sometimes translated into English text like "The next train is now two stations away from this station" or something like this, can't remember exactly - and often these messages are interrupted). 

The older lines, however, do have some electronic indicators, but there was generally only some Japanese text running through. At termini where trains stay in the platform and thus depart from either side, there are no signs which side the next train leaves. One train may have just arrived when you come down the escalator and the other may be about to leave, so you may have to wait for 8 minutes because you made the wrong guess. And with no minutes shown before departure, you'd always need a watch to compare the real time with the announced departure time (sometimes there is a clock visible, but often it isn't!).

Typical line panel on Toho Line

Signage is also much better on the Toho Line: on the walls behind the tracks there is a huge line panel with blue arrows indicating the direction. On the older lines, I missed global-standard line diagrams as soon as you come down to the platform to reassure you choose the right train. There are just signs above the platforms saying "For Odori, Sapporo, Asabu" (I think this is something we could copy from Japanese metros, that also major points are always included, or "Asabu via Odori & Sapporo").

Inside the trains, line information is rather modern, with two types, one a simple electronic display, the other a full screen with constantly changing information:

Modern in-train monitors with changing languages

Not really appealing enclosed viaduct through southern districts

Another special feature of the Sapporo Subway is, of course, the enclosed viaduct along the southern Namboku Line. I can understand the snow argument, but that's about it. The noise perceivable from street level is not less than on other metros with open viaducts, in fact I would say that for example Vienna's U-Bahn is less audible when gliding over viaducts. Inside the stations the noise is much too loud anyway, and besides that, the train makes the entire station tremble, as if a convoy of heavy lorries was crossing a bridge. And from the outside, it simply looks ugly! Similar solutions, for example in Prague, are much more appealing.

 Namboku Line - Kita sanju-jo station (some stations with side platforms have connecting underpasses between the platforms)

Regarding architecture and design, the stations are o.k., nothing to get excited about, but not horrible either, standard Japanese functional style without any special highlights. Although opened over a period of almost 30 years (1971-1999) you can't tell the difference which station is older and which is newer. The most common element to many stations is the use of small tiles for wall-cladding, mostly in inconspicuous brownish or yellowish tones, but some with a nice strong dark-green: 

Tozai Line - Nijuyonken station

On the orange Tozai Line, many stations feature wall panels with images associated with Sapporo - unfortunately, the same images are repeated every few metres and in every station:

Tozai Line - Nishi juhat-chome - lovely, though repetitive motifs

The weakest point of the entire system are certainly the entrances. Most are hidden somewhere in buildings, and many are hardly visible because the logo disappears in a mass of other signs. Graphically the 4-colour 'ST' logo is not bad as a company logo, but it is not suitable as a Subway logo. On many signs, the colours have paled out, and the letters are much too thin to be seen from a distance. 

Sakaemachi - hardly visible entrance sign

A logo should be visible from several hundred metres away so you know which way to head for the next station. I love those cities where the metro logo is actually in the middle of a road intersection. When I'm in a city unfamiliar to me, I often use the metro entrances as points of orientation. Which brings us to another weak point in Sapporo: Although some entrances apparently (I haven't double-checked with a bilingual map) show the station name in big signs in Japanese, there is nothing in "global script". Sapporo was once an Olympic City, but not even the Makomanei station has an English name sign on the outside. Also inside the stations, English is used much less than in other cities.

Makomanai station without any English signs 

While JR East is just beginning to introduced line codes and station numbers in the Tokyo area, rail stations in Hokkaido are already coded. But strangely, this has not been done in coordination with the Sapporo Subway, so H01 to H14 stands for the stations on the Sapporo Subway Toho Line, but also for the JR lines east of Sapporo station towards Chitose (I don't understand anyway what their letters refer to, because only H02-H04 would correspond to the 'Hakodate Line'). There is, of course, no proper fare integration between Subway and JR. In fact, not even the physical integration is too good - at Sapporo station, the respective Subway stations are one block further south than where they should be.

 Northbound low-floor tram (rear shot) on new section


Sapporo's single Streetcar line became a proper circular line only in Dec. 2015, prior to that it had two stub ends which were only some 450 m from each other. The new stretch looks nice, instead of the tracks in the middle of the road on marked-off lanes, they were laid along the curbside, which allowed for the integration of the only intermediate stop on the pavement, and with rather stylish shelters:

Southbound stop at Tanuki-koji on new section

The former stubs were rebuilt, the one at Nishi-yon-chome, which is one block south from the Odori Subway intersection, has two separate platforms on either side of the corner, whereas the former southern terminus at Susukino remained in the same place for both directions, but now has two tracks:

Former Susukino terminus

Despite this recent effort to modernise the system, with a couple of new low-floor trams, the Sapporo Streetcar still leaves a pathetic impression, mostly because it is extremely slow. Too many traffic lights and usually the stops being placed before the intersections, which causes too long waiting times. Most of the trams are very old, could run as heritage trams for tourists, but a modern mass transit system has other requirements. Again, you have to get on at the rear and get off at the front paying the paybox next to the driver (flat fare of 170 Yen, no day tickets on weekdays, just on weekends! IC cards are accepted), but when the tram gets full, this is very unpleasant if you have to squeeze through to get out. And unfortunately people up here are no better than in Tokyo, they just stand there making no effort to get out of your way, you really have to kick or push them. I sometimes feel I should throw their mobile phone to the ground, what a plague! Luckily they are not supposed to use it for talking with someone, would even be worse, but at least they might lift up their heads and look a bit what's happening around them.

The platforms are again extremely narrow, in Europe we would consider them too dangerous. If there are several people waiting to get on, they fill the entire platform, so those who want to get off, can't, because at the same time they would have to queue to get off the platform as the traffic light is probably red to cross the street immediately, and as the Japanese are not allowed to and therefore won't do it, they'll stand there waiting for a green light although there is no car in sight anywhere.... Most of them wouldn't see the green light anyway, because they are still staring at their mobile device, and therefore the traffic light, when it switches to green, makes a loud noise to tell them that now they can cross. Luckily car drivers are very respectful in Japan, so passengers won't be run over when crossing the street with their eyes still fascinated by what's going on on their mini screens.

So while all this seems to be a survivor of times gone by, the narrow platforms feature very modern screens, which actually display in real time where each tram is at the moment - and what's even better, it shows you where the low-floor cars are: 

Enlarge to spot the only low-floor car shown (the other had disappeared from the screen)

Today, two of them were operating on the inner loop, i.e. the anti-clockwise circle. I saw another one standing in the depot, so there should be at least three of them, but I'm not sure and Wikipedia doesn't have any info on rolling stock on the Sapporo Streetcar page. About half of the rest belongs to two different generations, most of the old ones are covered with full adverts, and the second generation mostly boasts a green livery: 

As I was primarily trying to get good photos of the new low-floor trams, I didn't actually get a chance to ride them. I wonder what they are like on what looked like rather worn-out track. But with the purchase of the new trams and the closure of the gap in the city centre, obviously a decision had been made to keep the Streetcar alive. But then really more improvements need to be made. In the course of a stop upgrade, these should be generally relocated after the traffic lights so the trams can flow with traffic. Like everywhere in Japan (and in Australia) I have observed that traffic light cycles are extremely long compared to typical European cities. Shortening these would already increase the overall (at least perceived) speed. And where necessary, the trams need to be given priority or at least let them preempt the traffic light so it stays on green until they have passed the junction.

Sapporo was modelled after American cities and therefore has a grid layout in the city centre. I guess, following the American example, Sapporo could do with a Downtown Circulator, taking the Streetcar at least to the railway station, the TV Tower, etc. This could be operated as a vintage line while the current system deserves some more modern rolling stock.

Previous stop: SENDAI | Go to the beginning of my Japan Tour: TOKYO Part 1

Or read my general Conclusions & Travel Tips



  1. I am not sure too what the real reasons for the rubber tyre system are. My guess would be that it was a technological gimmick, just to try something different, and hope that somebody in the world would buy this "advanced" Japanese technology. Japanese are great at exporting cameras, cars, machines, but all their new and unusual transport systems (AGT, monorails, and this Sapporo-subway) have hardly been a hit elsewhere.

    One big disadvantage is that the subway lines cannot continue to run on JR lines, as they do in many other Japanese cities. The Namboku Line at Asabu just looks like it could be integrated with JR, as does that Tozai Line at Shin-Sapporo, but of course with rubber tyres it never works.

    The tramway has been neglected for decades, as it was expected it would close "soon". However, it has survived, and since only a few years ago it has been widely accepted to keep the tram. That has been one reason why the low-floor trams were ordered so late, in 2012. I think it was the last city in Japan to get one. However, the recently opened new section gives hope that finally the tram will play a greater role in Sapporo.

  2. Your comments about Sapporo are spot on, especially the tram. Considering how trustworthy the japanese are it would be much better to buy the ticket on the tram and then everyone gets off quickly (from any door). Most people have an IC card anyway and would just tap in when boarding. The queuing on the narrow platforms to get off is especially annoying (and dangerous since you are only a few cm from the tram should it manage to depart).
    At least the tram in Sapporo has only one button to press (to request the tram to stop). I remember in Kumamoto there were two buttons inside the tram. One to request the tram to stop and another emergency stop button.. both marked in japanese only. luckily I was on the tram long enough to notice the two buttons and realise which one people were pressing to get off.
    There is a marked lack of english in Sapporo compared to other big cities in japan though, this might be related to fewer foreigners visiting. In my four days in the city in November 2016 I did not catch sight of a single westerner the whole time.

  3. Thanks for sharing all your fascinating pictures. I find them most enlighting and informative...... your comments are very illustrating and reflexive.......

    Regarding this marvelous AGT system or rubber tyred metro, there is a right tool for every job..... One might ask what the job is..... Perhaps there is more than it meets the eye, as for the justification for this technology at this particular location.....

    i.e.: technical factors: pphpd, small turning radius in a tight alignment, car body width, static load per axle, dynamic loads on infraestructure, certain noise frecuency restrictions, stray currents mitigation, power demand , delivery time constraints, preserving reduced access to right of way ; financial: low price, advantageous installment plan, operation maintenace ownership scheme, insurance plan, etc; ...... PR: local suppliers involved, local jobs generated, community demands met, community willingness to try new tech, ..... national promotion, marketing, etc, etc....

    perhaps being the devils advocate (no offense meant)..... best regards.....

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  5. This is a very nice article about the subway in Sapporo.
    Perhaps is our online navigation system for the Sapporo metro usefull as well.

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