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HISTORY OF JAPANESE RAILWAY

Realizing the Dream

Although it comes to us from a bygone era, we ore hoppily reunited with the post, the history of railroads, the challenges they represented, the obstocles they overcome, the frontiers they conquered, and the hopes for the future.

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While steam locomotives were breaking the 100km per hour record in Europe, the Japanese were still traveling by foot or on horseback. This was the result of a deliberate government Policy which declared Japan to be a closed country and allowed no one to enter or leave her shores with the exception of a small Dutch trading mission located in Nagasaki harbor.

This Policy had been in effect for several hundred years and successfully shielded Japan from the benefits of the industrial revolution. After Commodore Perrys visit in 1853, during which he presented a working model steam locomotive as gift to the ruling Shoguns, the superiority of western culture to that of the east was recognized. The industrialization of Japan began in the 1880s when Emperor Meiji declared the Meiji Restoration must begin and young Japanese students were sent to other countries to learn modern science and technology. Products were imported, disassembled, studied and often exactly duplicated during this industrial gestation period. This included a close examination of locomotives and railway equipment of all types. From this research, an industrial date base was established and steps were taken to apply the technologies, which had been studied and understood, to the production of domestically designed products. Since railways and locomotives made up the high tech industry of those days, it should be no surprise that close attention was given to mastering their design.

It was quickly recognized that the initial step transforming Japan into a modern nation must be the establishment of a rail system and, in 1872, the first Japanese railway come into existence between Tokyo and Yokohama using British engineering, construction companies and equipment. Great Britain also supplied the crews and trained their Japanese counterparts in railway operations. A narrow gauge track of 3 feet 6 inches, (or 42 inches/1067cm), was chosen since that was considered to be the most economical for Japans mountainous terrain and it had been previously proven successful in other countries. After the successful completion of this line, others were started.

Many American built locomotives were imported into Japan during these early days starting with the June 1887 shipment of two six wheel 42 inch gauge locomotives for the Mie Kie Mines. Early in 1897, a group of locomotives, designed by Baldwin to burn a low grade of coal, were shipped to the Nippon Railways. This group consisted of 4-4-2 Atlantics and a modified Consolidation design which had evolved into a 2-8-2 wheel arrangement. Known as the MIKADO, the 2-8-2 featured a wide, deep firebox which was located behind the rear driving axle and was supported by the rear truck. This type of locomotive was eventually used on American railroads. In 1904, 16 0-6-2 tank locomotives were built by Baldwin and shipped to Japan to operate on the Imperial Government Railways. They were constructed with plate frames in accordance with specifications provided by the railway. In 1905, 150 additional locomotives of the same type were built. In 1923, 18 0-6-6-0 42 inch gauge Mallets were built by Baldwin for the Imperial Government Railways. They were fitted with superheaters and weighed, exclusive of tender, 142640 lb. Baldwin also exported five electric interurban cars, or trucks as the were than called, in 1912 fore service on the Imperial Government Railways and in 1922, an additional 150 were ordered.

As early as 1879, Japanese train crews were operating exclusively throughout the home islands and by 1884, private railway companies were coming into existence. Japans first indigenous steam locomotives were constructed, starting in 1893, under the supervision of the grandsons of the Great British locomotive pioneer Richard Trevitick. The Trevithick brothers incorporated the newest technology of the times, compound cylinders which had been developed by A. Mallet, into this first Japanese locomotive which was known as the 860 class. It worked on the Karafuto (Sakhalin) Railway, now under Russian occupation, until 1928. Other private locomotive builders began to emerge in 1896 and by 1901, Japans railway net extended from Aomori at the north to Shimonoseki at the south.

World War I found Japan on the side of the Allies although most of her military operations were conducted in the Pacific. Heavy industry expanded at a rapid rate as did the population. Sometime between the years 1914 and 1920, Japans population had increased to the point that she could no longer feed her people with domestically produced food supplies. It was necessary to import raw materials, could be sold on the worlds markets, and use the profits to import food from countries which had an agriculture surplus. Thus Japan, within a period of only sixty years, had changed from a closed nation which did not wish to communicate or trade with the outside world, to nation which depended on international trade in order to survive. Under these circumstances, the railway system became even more important in its support of the industrial complex which had evolved, in regards both passenger and freight service. Continuous improvements were made to increase locomotive efficiency and the level of safety of operations since accidents severely disrupted the modernization effort.

In 1925, the JNR (Japan National Railways) changed from the old style hook couplers to the modern knuckle type and continued to make other subtle changes to improve safety although speeds remained low, as compared to Europe and the United States, until the completion of the first standard gauge track in the 1960s. However by the 1930s, Japanese locomotive design technology was on a par with that of Europe and the railways continued to play a major role in the growth of the country using domestically produced equipment. During the colonial expansion period of the 1930s, Japan began the construction of standard gauge lines with the idea of operating express trains from Manchuria to Europe but the world wide economic depression of the 1930s, coupled with the 1937 Japan-China conflict, ended this plan and eventually led to the disaster of WW.

The war shifted the focus of the railways from passenger service to that of freight and no less than 1115 of the famous JRN D51 Mikado locomotives were built between 1936 and 1945. Following the wars in 1945 emphasis shifted back to passenger service which precipitated the development of the C62 Hudsons. These locomotives were built during 1948 and 1949 even though the railways were undergoing a change to electrically powered locomotives. As the economy began to recover, the demand for increased passenger service grew and finally exceeded the limits of the old narrow gauge lines. Thus, the curtain was finally drawn on the old days of steam railroading in Japan with the introduction of the new standard gauge Bullet trains during the 1960s.

Todays railway system in Japan is predominantly electrically powered for both commuter and city to city freight and passenger operations. The various lines are color coded and using the system is easy once a passenger has experienced a few rides. The system is very crowded in the large cities during rush hours and traveling during those time periods can be a very interesting experience. It is possible to obtain service to the most remote villages although several transfers may be necessary. The Bullet trains provide the quickest service and are very popular with the traveling public however, the romance of steam lingers on.

 

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