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bill937ca

Notes on JNR Freight Operations

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bill937ca

I recently dug out some notes by Leroy Demery from 2003 on JNR era freight operations. This gives some perspective on the move to the container and bulk goods era.

 

Japan slashed its rail freight traffic in 1984, essentially giving up on everything except containers, bulk commodities and long-distance point-to-point traffic.

 

Most industrial centers are along the coast on deep, protected bays. Much of the freight traffic is short-haul (Japan isn't "small," but Sapporo to Fukuoka is "just" 1,200 miles or so). Most heavy industries and ports have rail connections, but smaller plants generally do not.

 

JNR became much like the Long Island Rail Road in terms of freight years ago. The "traditional" freight mode share was about 50 percent rail, most of the rest by coastal shipping, and 10 percent or less by road. This was true as recently as 1955. Thereafter, rail freight traffic remained constant as the economy grew -- in other words, rail freight became a declining share of a growing total.

 

Large-scale road paving during the 1960s led to an explosion of truck competition and also benefited coastal shipping at the expense of rail. Imported oil replaced coal from worked-out domestic mines as the primary energy source by the early '70s, cutting into railway freight traffic as well as making the economy vulnerable to world oil price changes.

 

In absolute (ton-mile) terms, freight traffic held up until the onset of the "oil shock" in 1974. Between that year and 1981, freight traffic collapsed to little more than half of the 1973 level. JNR, then in the midst of its terminal financial crisis, had attempted to stem the decline as part of its emergency plan to reduce losses, but without success.

 

Most of the decline was in single-carload movements that required repeated (and expensive) switching between origin and destination, thus the decision to concentrate on bulk commodities (petroleum, limestone, cement and coal, although domestic coal production has since ceased), containers, and ordinary carloads that could move from origin to destination in direct trains.

 

Parcels traffic was also progressively withdrawn. Then came the end of mail transport by rail.

 

An indication of how quickly carload traffic declined: JNR had 85,000 freight cars on its active roster in 1983, most of them two-axle boxcars built during the early 1960s. By 1985, a staggering 45,000 of these were either slated for scrap or stored out of service. In that year, there were more than 300 surplus electric locomotives and nearly 400 surplus diesels. Most of the surplus motive power dated to the early '60s but some of the diesels had been built as recently as 1974.

 

The end of single-carload traffic on JNR also brought about the end of such traffic on connecting lines, and led to closure of a few that relied heavily on freight.

 

Freight is still much in evidence on main lines in the form of container trains. But the long trains on branch and freight-only lines to major industries such as the Toyota auto factory in Toyota city (east of Nagoya) are now a thing of the past.

 

All this has an interesting relevance to passenger rail service. A handful of lines started as freight bypasses around major cities have become major passenger routes. On main lines, withdrawal of much freight traffic has provided additional capacity for operation of services catering to relatively short-distance traffic. A couple of lines have been regauged for through shinkansen service. This was facilitated by the lack of goods traffic. Additional lines, no longer major freight routes, may also be standard-gauged.

 

I never imagined how much of the rail scene I took in when first in Japan, in 1980 (not THAT long ago!) would change beyond recognition over the next two decades.

 

Leroy W. Demery, Jr.

 

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Sacto1985

You see a lot of coastal freight shipping in Japan nowadays. Many ports in Japan are specifically designed for such service. Indeed, that's why KHI's Hyogo assembly plant is right next to the shoreline of the Seto Inland Sea--it allows them to ship out Shinkansen train sets by barge.

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cteno4

Coastal shipping has always been big in japan.

 

jeff 

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Pashina12
7 hours ago, cteno4 said:

Coastal shipping has always been big in japan.

 

jeff 

 

Yeah, IIRC during the Edo period Japanese were forbidden from owning anything other than coastal ships or fishing boats...

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cteno4

For an mountainous island nation it makes a lot of sense to do any transport of bulk items by coastal shipping as it’s the most economical. Even transporting new trains can be easier that way if you have a bunch of them. Before steam power it made even more sense to ship by sea!

 

jeff

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