The Central Highlands Hokuriku Regions 1
Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 35 (pp.58–64)

Railway Operators in Japan 9
The Central Highlands and Hokuriku Regions

1.The Central Highlands
Yuichiro Kishi

Yamanashi and Nagano are mountainous prefectures in the middle of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The region is called the Central Highlands, because there are many peaks above 2000 m. The population is generally concentrated in the lower regions, especially Zenkoji, Matsumoto, Kofu and Suwa. Nagano City is the capital of Nagano Prefecture and has a population of about 360,000, while Matsumoto is a regional centre of 210,000. Kofu is the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture and has a population of 190,000. Both Matsumoto and Kofu were flourishing castle towns and the famous Buddhist temple of Zenkoji in Nagano City attracted many people.
The Central Highlands are adjacent to the Kanto region, which has been Japan's economic centre since the Edo period (1603–1868). However, high mountain passes at Usui (near Karuizawa) and Sasago (near Kofu) were a formidable barrier to easy passage between Kanto and the Central Highlands. The Tozando road was built through the Central Highlands much earlier in the Nara period (710–794) to link east and west Japan and it was as important as the old Tokaido highway along the Pacific Ocean coast. In the Edo period, the Tozando was upgraded and became the Nakasendo, one of Japan's five most important highways. It was a major route for people travelling between Kyoto and Edo (today's Tokyo) or going to visit Zenkoji temple. The Nakasendo began at Nihombashi in central Edo, ran north-west through the Kanto Plain and today's Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, and then turned south-west to Kyoto and Osaka. The route was favoured because travellers did not have to cross wide flooding rivers, unlike the Tokaido highway.
Japan's famous Mt Fuji (3776 m) is located in the region along with many other peaks in the Northern, Central and Southern Alps reaching up to 3000 m. Due to the region's natural beauty, there are many national parks and reserves that attract hikers in summer and skiers in winter. The region's many hot springs have been popular for centuries and Shingen Takeda (1521–73), the local feudal lord, is said to have visited many springs in present-day Yamanashi Prefecture. Stories about these ‘secret spas of Shingen' are still told over cups of hot sake rice wine.
This rest of this article describes the railway network in Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures.

Rail Network

When the government decided in 1869 to build a railway between Tokyo and Kobe via Kyoto and Osaka, there were two candidate routes: parallel to the Tokaido highway or following the course of the Nakasendo highway through the Central Highlands. Some government officials argued in favour of the Nakasendo route because it would stimulate the economy of the poorer interior, but the Tokaido route was chosen because construction was easier and it offered a better return on the initial huge capital investment. As a consequence, railways did not reach Nagano or Yamanashi until much later when the government railway's Shin'etsu main line linking Takasaki on the Kanto Plain to the port of Naoetsu on the Sea of Japan, via Karuizawa and Nagano was opened in 1893. Trains climbed the steep grade at the Usui Pass using the Abt rack-and-pinion system. This was the first part of government railway network to be electrified.
The route was realigned with new track in 1963. Although JR East continued using the old high-power Japanese National Railways (JNR) electric locomotives over the pass when it took over the line in 1987, they were troublesome and expensive to maintain. Consequently, when the Nagano Shinkansen started operations, the Usui pass section was abandoned cutting the line into two disconnected sections. JR East finally handed ownership of the Karuizawa–Shinonoi section to Shinano Railway (a joint public–private business) in 1997.
The 422.6-km Chuo main line is another well-travelled route running generally east–west through Yamanashi Prefecture and southern Nagano Prefecture. It originates in Tokyo, runs almost due west for 87.8 km to Otsuki and then winds its way to Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture and on to Suwa and Shiojiri in southern Nagano Prefecture. Although it terminates at Nagoya City, there is no single train that covers the entire distance between Tokyo and Nagano. Nowadays, the line exists mainly to link the metropolises of Tokyo and Nagoya with the Central Highlands. The sections east and west of Shiojiri Station are known as Chuo-tosen (East Chuo Line) and Chuo-saisen (West Chuo Line). The highland part of the West Chuo Line runs through the Kiso district, and is famous for its steep gradients and twisting turns. The famous poet and novelist Toson Shimazaki (1872–1943) said, ‘The Kiso tracks are all in the mountains.’
In Nagano Prefecture, the Shin'etsu and Chuo main lines are linked by the 66.7-km Shinonoi Line running from the central to the northern part of the prefecture. Much of the line is steeply graded single track but frequent Nagoya–Nagano express services give it the status of a secondary main line.
The Chuo main line and Shinano Railway are linked by the 78.9-km non-electrified Koumi Line, nicknamed the Yatsugatake Kogen (plateau) Line because it is the highest line in the JR group network and runs through areas of great natural beauty. (Shinano Railway operates part of the line.) The Iida and Minobu lines both belonging to JR Central are noteworthy because they run north–south through river valleys to connect the Central Highlands with the Pacific coast. They were originally constructed as private lines and then bought by the government railways in 1934, ultimately becoming part of the old JNR network. JR West and JR East jointly own the Oito Line while JR East is the sole owner of the Iiyama Line. Both are local lines connecting Nagano Prefecture to the Sea-of-Japan coast. They were built by private investors at the turn century and bought later by the government railways.
The ownership of lines in this region is complex because they were all JNR lines from 1949, but were divided between JR East, JR Central and JR West after the 1987 privatization, giving all three operators a share of the Central Highlands network. There are also private railways operate in the region that provide Group connections to one or another of the JR lines.

Map: Railway Lines in Central Highlands
Table: Size and Financial Status of Railways in Central Highlands Region
Table: Passenger Volume and Density of Non-JR Railway Companies
Photo: JR East's Koumi Line runs at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains. It is the highest line in the JR Group network, and uses Kiha Series 110 railcars.
(JR East)
Photo: The Usui Pass was always a hurdle for rail transport on the Shin'etsu main line. In later days, JNR coupled two Series EF63 electric locomotives at the back to push trains up the grade until the section was abandoned in 1997.
(Transportation Museum)

Shinkansen and Express Services

The 700-km Hokuriku Shinkansen is currently under construction from Tokyo to Shin Osaka via Toyama, Kanazawa, Fukui and Obama on the Sea-of-Japan coast. The section between Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture and Nagano is commonly called the Nagano Shinkansen, and was opened in 1997 just before the Nagano Winter Olympics. It is served by Series E2 Asama rolling stock, which has a maximum speed of 260 km/h. The fastest direct service from Tokyo to Nagano takes 1 hour 19 minutes, much less than the 2 hours 39 minutes taken by the former fastest limited express on the conventional line. The Nagano Shinkansen has brought economic benefits to nearby communities and more than 60 large corporate buildings have been constructed near the new Sakudaira Station. It seems that the line is attracting more passengers and causing a shift away from cars and buses. Two more sections are under construction between Nagano and Toyama (about 170 km), and between Isurugi and Kanazawa (about 25 km). The former section is scheduled to open in about 10 years with tunnels making up more than half the entire length. Although grades of up to 30‰ will limit maximum speeds to 260 km/h, the run between Tokyo and Toyama is expected to cut more than 1 hour off the current time of 3 hours 7 minutes.
Reducing journey times on conventional lines has been a constant goal even from the early JNR days; lines have been upgraded, new sections have been built, and tunnels have been cut to shorten routes. For example, the 5994-m Enrei Tunnel was opened in 1983 after 14 years of difficult construction, cutting about 16 km off the old winding route on the East Chuo Line between Okaya and Shiojiri. It reduces the journey time of some Azusa limited-express services between Shinjuku and Matsumoto by 26 minutes.
Better rolling stock has also shortened journey times. After the West Chuo Line was electrified in 1972, JNR introduced tilting electric Series 381 Shinano limited expresses between Nagoya and Nagano, permitting faster, smoother operations through tight curves. This was the first time in the world that tilting trains had been used in commercial operations. Tilting increased the maximum speed through curves by 25 km/h, cutting 40 minutes off the time taken by older loco-hauled limited expresses between Nagoya and Nagano. The success of electrification and tilting saw later adoption of the same technology on the new Series E351 Super Azusa limited expresses on the East Chuo Line. These were JR East's first tilting units and they have a maximum speed of 130 km/h between Shinjuku and Matsumoto on the East Chuo Line, reducing journey times for the fastest services by more than 10 minutes to 2 hours 30 minutes.
The obsolete Series 381 was replaced in 1994 when JR Central developed the Series 383. Today, all Shinano limited expresses on the West Chuo Line use the fast and comfortable Series 383.
The 1973 Basic Plan drawn up as a result of the Nationwide Shinkansen Development Law included a route (provisionally called the Chuo Shinkansen) through the Central Highlands from Tokyo to Osaka, via Kofu, Nagoya and Nara. It would run well inland from the existing Tokaido Shinkansen, which has almost reached saturation point. Some people have called for use of a MAGLEV and JR Central and Japan Railway Construction Public Corporation (JRCC) are presently examining the topography and geology of the area. Research is being conducted at the Yamanashi Test Line in Yamanashi Prefecture with a view to developing commercial MAGLEVs using superconducting electromagnets. The technology is still experimental but could be ready in a few years.

Photo: JR East opened the Nagano Shinkansen between Takasaki and Nagano in 1997. The Series E2 rolling stock is unique to the line.
(JR East)

Competition with Expressways

Due to the difficult topography, railways in the Central Highlands enjoyed a strong competitive edge over roads for many years because railways were more reliable and faster. Even when there was a road running parallel to a railway line, it was often an unpaved dirt surface. Other roads followed long sinuous routes and were often blocked by heavy snow.
But the steady advance of expressways with a maximum speed limit of 100 km/h changed the situation in the 1970s. A typical example is the Chuo Expressway toll road running mostly parallel to the Chuo main line. The older national highway is slowed considerably by the winding route through the Sasago Pass, while the 4.7-km long expressway tunnel under the pass quickly speeds vehicles to their destinations. As a result, soon after the expressway opened, express buses began running from Tokyo to Lake Kawaguchi at the foot of Mt Fuji and to Kofu.
Iida is a regional centre surrounded by steep mountains to the east and west in southern Nagano Prefecture. The Iida Line runs north–south through the valley and was the city's only transport route for many years. A few bus services running mostly parallel to the track were introduced around 1950 but JNR did not see them as rivals. However, construction of the Chuo Expressway through part of the valley opened it up to road traffic from Nagoya in the west and Tokyo in the east. Fearing a loss of passengers, JNR tried to prevent bus operations on the Chuo Expressway but one bus route after another was soon offering direct express services to Tokyo and Nagoya from regional cities like Iida, Komagane and Ina. For example, there are 17 daily return services between Iida and Shinjuku, with the first departure from Iida at 05:00 and the last arrival at 23:50. The travel time of about 4 hours and the single fare of ¥4200 are both better than the journey by rail. As a result, JNR's share of the passenger market has dropped.
Express buses are even holding their own in the Tokyo–Nagano market where the Nagano Shinkansen has made rail travel very convenient. One bus route from Ikebukuro in Tokyo to Nagano offers six daily returns during the day. Although the travel time of about 3 hours 10 minutes is at least 30 minutes longer than by Nagano Shinkansen, the buses compete by offering a fare of ¥4000—almost half the train fare. The bus route between Shinjuku and Nagano is so popular that the operator increased the number of daily returns runs from six to eight in January 2003. Express buses also link major cities within Nagano Prefecture, posing a severe challenge to railway operators. For example, buses run at 1-hour intervals between the two biggest cities of Nagano and Matsumoto and the fare is less than half the fare on JR Central's Shinano limited expresses. Although the train is much faster, the railway cannot match the low bus fares and rail ridership between the two cities is unfortunately suffering.
Undoubtedly, expressways will continue to extend their reach and national and prefectural highways will continue to be upgraded. In 1993, the Joshin'etsu Expressway opened between the Fujioka Interchange in Gunma Prefecture and the Saku Interchange just inside Nagano Prefecture. Its tunnels and huge bridges made it easy to traverse the difficult Usui Pass by road, and helped kill the railway line.

Photo: JR Central's two-car driver-only EMU on Iida Line. The line started driver-only operation in Nagano from March 2001.

Local Railways

The 12.9-km Kijima Line operated by Nagano Electric Railway between Shinshu Nakano and Kijima closed on 31 March 2002, ending 77 years of operation. At closure, the ridership was less than 20% of the peak. The company found that rationalization, such as reducing services and using driver-only trains, were insufficient to keep the line in operation.
At the end of 2001, Nagano Prefecture had more than 1.816 million registered motor vehicles. This is more than two vehicles per household and is the second highest per capita figure in the country. The period before the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics saw rapid construction and upgrading of roads. As a result of this heavy dependence on motor vehicles, local railways are finding it impossible to stop the drop in passenger numbers and are suffering gravely.
Ueda Transport used to run trains on more than 50 km of tracks in Ueda City and to surrounding communities, including Sanada, Soehi and Maruko. Today, the network has been reduced to the 11.6-km Bessho Line from Bessho Onsen to Ueda, a station on the Shinano Railway. The Bessho Line runs at a deficit every year and rolling stock and facilities have deteriorated greatly. The company is now appealing to the Ueda municipal government for support in obtaining the ¥1 billion needed over 10 years to invest in new rolling stock and infrastructure.
JR East's 96.7-km non-electrified Iiyama Line runs through the Iiyama Basin along the Chikuma River (also called the Shinano River). Part of the line runs parallel to the Kijima Line on the opposite side of the river, which was recently abandoned by Nagano Electric Railway. Like its abandoned neighbour, the Iiyama Line is in difficult financial straits but it is still in operation because it serves as a community lifeline through an area that experiences record winter snowfalls (785 cm at one station). The line is popular with train enthusiasts because Russell snowplows make practice runs before deep winter sets in. The heavy snow-clearing costs and investment in snow-related equipment are the main reason why the line is so unprofitable. When JNR owned the line, it announced a closure plan because it was so unprofitable.
The Oito Line runs from Matsumoto through Shinano Omachi to Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea-of-Japan coast. JR East runs operations south of Minami Otari and JR West handles operations to the north. JR East's southern section (Oito-nansen or South Oito Line) is electrified, permitting through operations by Azusa limited expresses that are popular with tourists from the Chuo main line. Some driver-only local operations use new rolling stock with a VVVF inverter control system. JR West's northern section (Oito-hokusen or North Oito Line) is not electrified and crosses a prefectural boundary. As a consequence, JR West only operates single diesel railcars for local traffic with very low ridership levels. Heavy rains washed away about 20 km of track in 1995 and there were fears that the line would be abandoned. Although it reopened in November 1997 after 26 months of costly reconstruction, the decline in passengers could not be stemmed so JR West cut the number of trains by 30% and removed staff from all stations except the termini in March 2002. When the Hokuriku Shinkansen opens to points further west, the North Oito Line will be severed from the JR West network, and may await a similar fate to the Hokuriku main line.
It is not the only local lines that face a difficult future. JR East sold the 65.1-km Karuizawa–Shinonoi section of the Shin'etsu main line to Shinano Railway when the Nagano Shinkansen began operating in the same corridor. The change in ownership (which the government approved) was the first case of a JR transferring ownership of a conventional line after development of a new shinkansen.
The new owners realized that the Shin'etsu main line would lose its bread-and-butter express passengers, but the large trackside population gave them cause for optimism. They assumed that building new stations, increasing services and keeping fares stable would boost ridership and profitability. The Nagano prefectural government strongly supported the new venture, becoming the main shareholder and lending the ¥10.3 billion needed to buy the assets. But ridership continued to decline by more than 3% annually and Shinano Railway's debts exceeded its assets by FY2001. The company's situation is worse than anyone could have possibly foreseen but the company has been resolute in cutting costs, improving its image and strengthening its business. For its part, the Nagano prefectural government established a committee to examine restructuring and is offering public support, including debt forgiveness. Despite its difficulties, Shinano Railway still seems eager to operate the Shinonoi–Nagano section of the Shin'etsu main line, which it was unable to acquire when the company was founded. It also wants to take over the northern section that JR East plans to sever from its network when the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line reaches Toyama.

Photo: DC EMUs carry many tourists and hikers run on JR East's South Oito Line.
(Y. Kuroda)
Photo: Stainless-steel Series 7200 operated by Ueda Transport Corporation on Bessho Line. The company has regularly upgraded rolling stock to improve operations but ridership continues to drop.

Railways and Tourism

The Nagano Shinkansen opened before the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in time to carry thousands of spectators, and contributed greatly to local tourism. Before the Games, local governments throughout the prefecture launched massive tourism promotions. The athletes, spectators and tourists from around the world created an exciting atmosphere that is still fresh in the minds of many.
The Central Highlands are rich in railway-accessible tourist attractions ranging from hot springs to historic sites to scenic beauty spots. The region's railway operators have long played a major role in developing tourism in order to boost their ridership and the region has been so important as a tourist destination that some through services to Yudanaka ran from Ueno in Tokyo. For example, the well-known Shiga Highlands were developed into a famous tourist spot years ago by Nagano Electric Railway whose Yudanaka Station terminus is the highland gateway. During the day, the company runs limited expresses at 1-hour intervals from Nagano to Yudanaka and buses depart from Yudanaka Station for spas and other destinations in the Shiga Highlands.
The company—which was originally called Kato Railway—was established to link cities on the east side of the Chikuma River, an area that has some of Nagano Prefecture's best hot springs at Yudanaka, Shibu, Andai and Kambayashi where it developed and operates the famous Kambayashi Hotel. As part of its 1929 promotion plans, the railway invited the famous Norwegian skier Olaf Helset to the area, which he described as the St Moritz of the Orient.
Ueda Onsen Denki (now Ueda Transport) promoted skiing and tourism in a similar fashion. In addition to its lines carrying people to the Bessho health spa and pilgrims to the temple of the Kitamukai Kannon, it laid track to the Sugadaira ski resort, and constructed a hotel there. When it invited the famous Austrian skier, Hannes Schneider, to the slopes, he called them Japan's Black Forest. As part of its PR campaign, the railway prefixed the name of the line with Sugadaira to emphasize the attraction of the area.
Schneider also visited the Nozawa Onsen ski resort near a station operated by Iiyama Railway (now part of JR East's Iiyama Line) where he demonstrated a formidable ski jump to the locals, creating sufficient excitement to provide the railway with an opportunity to attract more skiers to the area.
The private Matsumoto Electric Railway operates a 14.4-km line from Matsumoto to Shin Shimashima the gateway to Kamikochi one of Japan's most beautiful highlands. The line was built for hikers and tourists visiting the highlands and peaks in the Northern Alps. The area is so popular that during high summer Matsumoto Electric trains operate a 03:00 run to meet hikers on JR night trains.
To protect the natural vegetation and wildlife, automobile traffic is prohibited from some areas year-round. The railway company has introduced hybrid buses in an attempt to promote both rail and bus travel to the highlands, but it has not boosted ridership because many tourists prefer to go by car as far as the restricted area, then take a shuttle bus from there into the highlands. Matsumoto Electric has long hoped to build a Swiss-style mountain railway to higher elevations, but the construction costs and environmental impact will probably stop the project from ever being realized.
In Yamanashi Prefecture, Fuji Kyuko operates daily local and limited express services over a 26.6-km electrified line from Otsuki to Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi), one of five lakes at the foot of Mt Fuji. Passengers boarding the Fuji-san Tokkyu limited express pay a rapid-service surcharge. The company has always been active in many sectors, especially tourism and road transport and its railway income is now less than 10% of all group income. Its non-rail business ventures include amusement parks, hotels, and real-estate developments for summer cottages. It has also sponsored a number of speed skaters, including two Olympic bronze medallists.
Over the last few years, Fuji Kyuko has promoted tourist traffic from the Tokyo area. For example, it permits JR to operate through weekend services to Kawaguchi-ko from Tokyo and Saitama, as well as two daily commuter return runs with through services to Tokyo Station. On the other hand, there are no through services from Kawaguchi-ko running west to Kofu, the prefectural capital, because passengers in that direction are far more likely to use Fuji Kyuko buses than trains.
Finally, the area has Japan's only two trolley bus services as one part of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route connecting Nagano with Toyama in the Hokuriku region. They are described in detail in the second part of this article below.

Photo: Some limited-express rolling stock used by Nagano Electric Railway between Nagano and Yudanaka reminds passengers of the company's early days.
(S. Takashima)

Yuichiro Kishi
Mr Kishi is Curator of the Transportation Museum, Tokyo. He obtained a Masters degree in 2000 from Tokyo Gakugei University. His main research interests are the management history of local private railways and the history of museum development. He is co-author of Zenkoku torokko ressha (Trolley Trains in Japan) published by the JTB.