INTRO: Shojiro Nan-ya, President of West Japan Railway, believes that the latest design of Shinkansen rolling stock is winning back traffic lost to air. Murray Hughes met him in Japan

ALTHOUGH immensely successful, Japan’s Shinkansen is not invincible. Both JR Central’s Tokaido Shinkansen and the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Fukuoka operated by JR West are currently facing determined competition from short-haul airlines. The Sanyo Shinkansen is a prime target for airlines who are seeking to grow their business to and from Osaka, Fukuoka, Okayama and Hiroshima.

Although through services run approximately every hour between Tokyo and Fukuoka, JR West President Shuijiro Nan-ya admits that it is not really possible to compete seriously against air over the 1069 km between the two cities. The fastest rail journey takes 4h 49min, but this is too long for day return business travel. ’The route is dominated by the airlines, and competition is inescapable’, says Nan-ya, who estimates that 22% of traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen competes directly against air.

’Until last year’, he says, ’rail’s share of the Osaka - Fukuoka market was in decline. Now this has bottomed out and is showing signs of recovery.’ There was a 1% increase in the number of passengers carried in the first half of the 2000 financial year to September.

Nan-ya admits that this upturn could be linked to Japan’s improving economy, but he also attributes the improvement to the launch in March 2000 of the Hikari Rail Star (RG 2.00 p82). This is an eight-car version of the Series 700 Shinkansen design whose maximum speed is 285 km/h. Its modern styling swiftly attracted passengers previously accustomed to Series 0 trainsets whose design dates from the original bullet trains in the mid-1960s.

JR West had an initial fleet of nine Hikari Rail Star sets, to which three more have just been added. Nan-ya says that ’we have now decided to order three more, and we are also purchasing 12 Series 700 sets with 16 cars.’

Series 700 is a joint development with JR Central, and Nan-ya stresses that the two are co-operating in the battle for long-haul business against the airlines. ’We are revising our schedules, and in the next three years we will be introducing more Series 700 units to accelerate services.’

Nan-ya is convinced that airline deregulation ’has definitely had an effect - in JR West’s operational area there are three main competitors and one new entrant - competition between the airlines has spilled over into competition against rail’, he remarks. But he believes that the airlines cannot continue to expand as ’airport capacity in Japan is limited, so they cannot increase frequency of service very much.’

Gauge-convertible trains

JR West’s territory includes a number of major cities on the Sea of Japan coast such as Tottori, Matsue, Izumoshi and Hamada which are far removed from the Sanyo Shinkansen. There is virtually no prospect of building new lines to reach them, nor, according to Nan-ya, of adopting JR East’s solution of converting selected routes to accommodate mini-shinkansen trainsets. This is because ’the distances are too great for gauge conversion.’

Nan-ya points out that ’the Ministry of Transport is trying to develop variable-gauge trains (RG 3.99 p155), and he believes that this is a suitable option for JR West. ’The Ministry of Transport and the Railway Technical Research Institute are testing the prototype train, and we have given them permission to conduct tests at our Shimonoseki facility.’ The three-car prototype was sent for trials with TTCI in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1998 and is due to return from the USA this month.

Not that developing such an ambitious concept for high speed operation is likely to prove easy. Operating a gauge-convertible train at Shinkansen speeds is a major challenge, and ’we have to ensure safety, manage costs and maintain comfort standards with no vibrations’, says Nan-ya.

Cities on the island of Shikoku are also interested in the variable-gauge train concept, and Nan-ya says ’there are great expectations’.

Tongue in cheek, perhaps, he comments that Japan’s Minister of Land, Infrastructure & Transport Mrs Chikage Ogi, who was reappointed in the reformed cabinet on December 5, comes from Kagawa on Shikoku, and is enthusiastic about the project. But he adds wryly that ’Japanese ministers are short-lived and I can’t predict that on this project the government will take the responsibility.’

Cost cutting essential

Partly because Japan’s economy has faltered, JR West’s revenues have been falling. ’We expected this’, comments Nan-ya. ’It is not an escapable trend. So we need to cut costs, and we are thinking of reducing the headcount over the next five years. Many employees will fall due for retirement in this period, and we shall reduce the number of hirings, so we expect the programme to go smoothly.’

The retirement statistic may reflect another factor that occupies Japanese businesses. The population is ageing, and in Nan-ya’s view ’we need to ensure that our facilities are easy to use, so we must install more escalators and elevators to help make travel free of barriers for elderly people.’

Nan-ya envisages widespread renovation of facilities in stations with more sophisticated provision for passengers, including the latest IT equipment. ’We live in the IT age’, he says, ’and we need to improve our facilities.’

The biggest improvements, however, will come from new rolling stock, says Nan-ya. The Sunrise Express sleeping car EMU service introduced in 1998 on conventional 1067mm gauge lines from Tokyo to Izumoshi on the Sea of Japan and Takamatsu on Shikoku has proved ’very popular’, but there is also a need to replace daytime narrow gauge rolling stock. The plans include more Series 681 Thunderbird sets to replace remodelled Series 481 Super Raicho trains in the Hokuriku area.

CAPTION: Old and new. JR West’s Hikari Rail Star sets (right) are replacing Series 0 units (left), raising comfort standards and cutting journey times on the Sanyo Shinkansen

CAPTION: The Sunrise Express EMUs operated jointly by JR Central and JR West have revived overnight travel between Tokyo and Izumoshi on the Sea of Japan coast since their launch in 1998 Photo: Mikio Miura