JIN-311 -- Choosing the Hare Over the Tortoise -- the Vanishing "Blue Trains"

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T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 311
Thursday March 3, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Choosing the Hare Over the Tortoise --
the Vanishing "Blue Trains"

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Choosing the Hare Over the Tortoise --
the Vanishing "Blue Trains"

On my bookshelf sits a copy of "Blue Train - Nagasaki-
bound," an anthology of essays on rail travel by Paul
Theroux and Hiroyuki Agawa including their dialogue en
route to the city of the title. It is treasured volume,
a gift from Agawa when I made his acquaintance on the
occasion of translating one of his novels into English
many years ago.

Agawa had rendered into Japanese Theroux's "Great Railway
Bazaar," which led the publisher to invite the American
author to join fellow rail enthusiast Agawa on a train
journey. The train chosen was the "Hayabusa," one of the
"Blue Trains," expresses with sleeping berths, running
between Tokyo and Kyushu, since in those days this was
the longest rail trip in Japan.

But the "Blue Trains" are vanishing.

The "Asakaze" and "Sakura" pulled out of the Tokyo
Station for the last time on the evening of February 28,
bound, respectively, for Shimonoseki and Nagasaki. They
were discontinued because of a drop in ridership. Other
express sleepers are also operating in the red. But there
are rays of hope for the Blue Trains, although they
radiate north rather than west from Tokyo.

"If service is being ended because of a drop in passengers,
then it was a management decision made too late," remarks
Naoto Hashimoto, a rail enthusiast and expert in public

Express sleepers have steadily lost ridership. JR's internal
documents disclose that many Blue Trains lost between
20 and 50 percent of their ridership from 1999 to 2003.
That should come as no surprise. Although they are slower
than airplanes and the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), express
sleepers are more expensive. "The utilization ratio of the
'Asakaze’ was 30 percent on average," remarked a JR

How do the Blue Train and Bullet Train compare in cost? A
nine-car express sleeper accommodates 230 passengers. Each
passenger coach costs between 200 and 300 million yen. The
locomotive costs even more. In contrast, an entire 16-car
Shinkansen costs between 4 and 5 billion yen and seats 1,300
passengers. Thus the express sleeper is inefficient. Faced
with those numbers, even Hashimoto agrees the discontinuation
of "Askaze" and "Sakura" makes sense.

Those were not the only express sleepers in the red. "Nearly
all express sleepers" are operating at a deficit," confides
a JR spokesperson.

However, even after the retirement of "Askaze" and "Sakura"
14 Blue Trains remain in service.

In actuality, in contrast to the plummeting ridership of
Tokyo-Kyushu trains, northbound trains from Tokyo have seen
only a small drop in utilization ratio.

"Japan National Railway's breakup and privatization decided the
fate of the express sleepers," asserts the rail journalist
Naoki Tanemura. He was referring to the split of the Japan
National Railways into regional companies in 1987.

The Tokyo-Kyushu express sleepers run through areas under the
jurisdiction of four companies -- JR East Japan, JR Tokai,
JR West Japan, and JR Kyushu. Thus any decision requires the
consensus of the four companies. But each company has a
different level of passion for Blue Trains for the simple
reason revenues are proportional to distances under their

Take, for example, the "Hayabusa" which operates between
Tokyo and Kumamoto, Kyushu. Following are the distances
under the jurisdiction of the companies: JR East, 150km
(Tokyo - Atami); JR Tokai, 341km (Atami - Maibara); JR West,
654km (Maibara - Shimonoseki); and JR Kyushu, 197km
(Shimonoseki - Kumamoto). Says Tanemura, "The 'Hayabusa'
is unattractive for companies with short distances like
JR East and JR Kyushu."

In contrast, the express sleeper on the Tokyo-Hokkaido run is
operated by just two companies, JR East and JR Hokkaido. The
distances (and revenues) are also in roughly equal. Take, for
example, the Hokutosei (Ueno - Sapporo). The respective
distances are 662km for JR East and 454km for JR Hokkaido.
The concomitant near parity in revenue gives the two
railroads a cooperative synergy.

While westbound express sleepers from Tokyo are being
successively discontinued, a new sleeper service has been
inaugurated between Ueno and Sapporo -- the "Kashiopea."
Its utilization rate is healthy, between 60 and 70 percent.

The sales point of the sleeper for the businessperson has
been that travel by night frees the entire day. But the
expansion of the network of super-fast Bullet Trains has
diminished this advantage.

The Japanese are choosing the hare over the tortoise. That
is understandable. However, speed comes at a price. The Bullet
Train contracts travel time to where it is too short for
all-night bull session, deprives passengers of the pleasure
of leisurely savoring the landscape through the window, and
lacks the rhythmic noises that inspired George Gershwin to
compose "Rhapsody in Blue."

The day is not far off when the "Hayabusa" succumbs and my
copy of "Blue Train - Nagasaki-bound" becomes a relic of a
vanished way of travel westward.

-- Burritt Sabin

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