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Sunday, Aug. 26, 2001

Engine of a nation's modernization

Staff writer
A HISTORY OF JAPANESE RAILWAYS: 1872-1999, by Eiichi Aoki, Mitsuhide Imashiro, Shinichi Kato and Yasuo Wakuda. Tokyo: East Japan Railway Culture Foundation, 2000, 256 pp., 5,000 yen (cloth).

Few industries have a more illustrious history than that of the railroad. From its birth in the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, the railway industry helped transform developing nations into industrial powers. Though now often overshadowed by the automobile and passenger jet, rail transport still plays a vital role at the dawn of the 21st century.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, charts and drawings, this book is described by its author as the first complete history of Japanese railways written in English. "Complete" is a tall order to fill, but the authors have done a decent job of covering all the bases, if somewhat sketchily, as they describe the growth of Japan's railroads from a single-track steam railway in 1872 to today's dense network that stretches over 27,000 km.

More analysis would have been welcome, but the book's sheer breadth and numerous graphics are sure to make it a valued addition to the collection of any train buff.

The story of the Japanese railroad begins in 1869, when Sir Harry Parkes, British minister to Japan from 1865 to 1883, encouraged the new Meiji government to build a railway, saying that it would greatly facilitate the nation's modernization efforts. But what convinced the government to move ahead with construction was its belief that railways would help it centralize its power, says leading railway historian Eiichi Aoki.

From 1870, roughly 300 foreign experts, mostly Britons but some Americans and a German as well, were hired by the government to get Japan's railway industry rolling. British civil engineer Edward Morel oversaw the construction of Japan's first line, a 29-km stretch connecting Tokyo and Yokohama, using technology imported from England.

A grand opening ceremony attended by the Meiji Emperor took place Oct. 14, 1872. With a British engine driver at the controls, the first train eased out of Shimbashi Station and, chugging along at precisely 32.8 kph, arrived at the Yokohama terminal 53 minutes later.

Then, as now, technological development marched forward at a relentless pace. If you were to take the new Tokyo tramway that opened in 1882, your car would have been pulled by a pair of horses. But by the turn of the century, the mares had been put out to pasture, replaced by gleaming electric trains.

Electric tramways quickly became an essential means of urban transport. So important, say the authors, that "their management policy affected citizens directly and elicited their quick response -- fare increases often met with passenger protests, escalating into riots in some cases."

Japanese trains are renowned for being on time, but this didn't become a hallmark until 1916, the year punctuality was instituted as an official policy.

A myriad of factors go into making trains run on time but workforce skills counted the most, says author Shinichiro Kato.

To attract the best workers, the now-nationalized railways established an employee welfare system -- the first of its kind in Japan -- together with training programs aimed at upgrading workers' skills. As a result, "the engine drivers had the best discipline and highest morale among the workforce."

Europe, the pioneer in urban rail systems, greatly influenced Japanese transportation planners. After studying rail systems in London, Paris and Berlin, Tokyo decided in 1906 to emulate Berlin's Stadtung-Ringbahn, a decision that led to the construction of the Yamanote Line. Tokyo Station was opened in 1914 to replace Shimbashi Station as the main terminal, but the Yamanote Line circle was not completed until 1925, when Tokyo and Ueno stations were linked during reconstruction following the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Railways are not usually thought of as social leveler, but they have helped make Japanese society a little more egalitarian.

Japanese department stores traditionally catered to the more privileged classes. But private railway firms in Tokyo and Osaka, looking for ways to stimulate passenger demand, decided to construct department stores above station terminals that would cater to the general populace. The stores were a success, and owning a department store became -- and still remains -- a status symbol for private railway companies.

Japan's industrialization and the accompanying growth of large cities in the early decades of the 20th century gave birth to a new urban middle-class, and by the 1920s and '30s tourism had exploded. Railway companies helped fuel this growth by making travel affordable for the masses and by developing tourist attractions along their lines.

In the Kanto region, Tobu Railway made Nikko a popular destination. In Kansai, Keihan Electric railway took a leading role in developing beaches and ski resorts near Lake Biwa.

For most commuters in Osaka and Tokyo, it's hard to imagine life without the serpentine maze of subways that run beneath the city streets. But as late as the 1950s, the two cities together had less than 25 km of subway track, and tramways remained the mainstay of urban transportation.

It didn't take long before soaring urban populations and growing traffic congestion in the postwar period conspired to render tramways obsolete. While the plan had been to gradually replace tramways with subways, riders were abandoning the increasingly unpunctual lines in such great numbers that virtually all tram companies folded by the early 1970s.

With no alternative but to go underground, Tokyo and Osaka began digging. By the late 1960s, Tokyo alone had over 100 km of track built. Now its subway system stretches well over 200 km, and the total for the nation is approaching 700 km.

The shinkansen remains the crown jewel of Japan's railway system. Presenting an engineering challenge only surpassed by America's moon shot, the Tokaido Shinkansen's completion in 1964 vaulted Japan to the top ranking of advanced nations, and gave the world its first taste of the technological prowess that would make Japan an economic powerhouse a few years later.

But even the high-tech shinkansen could not bring victory in Japan National Railway's efforts to compete with automobiles and passenger jets. Ironically, in 1964, the same year JNR launched the shinkansen, it also ran its first deficit. From 1971 onward, expenditures exceeded revenues. Although JNR took steps to reverse its fortunes, its efforts fell flat. For example, substantial rate hikes in the 1970s only accelerated the shift of medium and long-distance passengers from rail to road and air. And efforts to downsize staff were opposed and defeated by trade unions.

In a final effort to staunch the flow of red ink, the state-owned company was privatized in 1987 and seven regionally based JR companies were created.

Although they fared well in the heady days of the bubble economy, a decade of near-zero economic growth has forced the JRs to scramble to stay afloat, and additional deregulation will only heighten the challenges they face, says author and former Ministry of Transportation official Yasuo Wakuda.

Fortunately for the JRs, privatization and deregulation have brought new opportunities in addition to challenges. Given a green light by the government to diversify into tourism, retail, real estate, telecommunication and other potentially lucrative areas, Japan's railway industry is moving full-speed ahead into its third century.

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