JR East freight

JAPAN: The increasing use of high speed passenger trains to carry light freight was highlighted by a fair at Tokyo station on May 17 where products now being transported to the capital by Shinkansen were available for purchase.

The rail services have benefited from a national shortage of commercial vehicle drivers, as well as laws introduced on April 1 which limit overtime working, with the cost to the consumer of delivering parcels by road reported to have increased by up to 20%.

Growing network

A pilot scheme carrying high value perishable foodstuffs by high speed train was launched in 2019. The concept received a boost during the pandemic, when the drop in passenger numbers freed up onboard space, and in April 2021 JR East created a JR East Logistics subsidiary to further develop the market.

All JR Group passenger operators now offer high speed parcels services, totalling around 40 trains per day. In April JR Central began carrying freight on its Kodama stopping services on the Tokaido and Sanyo high speed lines, and JR Kyushu offers road connections to provide a door-to-door service.

In August 2023 JR East launched a parcels service from Niigata to Tokyo offering same-day delivery using a dedicated 12-car Series E trainset which does not carry any passengers. Traffic includes fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, confectionery, alcoholic drinks, freshly cut flowers, precision components and medical supplies.

In September 2023 a freight-only service was introduced on the Tohoku Shinkansen and JR East now offers Hakobyun-branded freight services from most stations on its high speed network, as well as on Limited Express services on its conventional lines.

Freight handling

High speed trains which also carry passengers can accommodate up to 40 boxes, which must be under 1 200 mm in length, width and height and must not exceed 20 kg, although exceptions can be made on request.

Loading and unloading is currently labour-intensive, and the railways are assessing whether the market might grow to an extent that would justify capital investment in handling equipment.

JR East is also considering the development of high speed trainsets designed solely for the transport of freight.