What to Know About Japan Train System

Unveiling information on Japan's railway system: rail companies and types of trains.
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Overview of Japan's Railway System

Japan Rail Companies

Although trains were part of life in Japan since 1872, the first organization with the sole purpose of operating the railway system was established only in 1949. Before that, everything related to train travel in Japan was under the wing of the central government.

​As you can imagine, the system grew rapidly and demanded more and more resources, so relatively soon it became clear that having a separate organization to take care of that would be much more efficient. So, the government-owned Japanese National Railways public corporation was born. ​But, unfortunately, JNR soon turned out to be on shaky ground, as there is a big difference between government-owned and government-run organizations - a matter of funds distribution. ​

On April 1 of 1987, Japanese National Railways was privatized and divided into seven separate units. Six of them were in charge of all passenger services of the country and nowadays are known as Hokkaido Railway Company, East Japan Railway Company, Central Japan Railway Company, West Japan Railway Company, Shikoku Railway Company, and Kyushu Railway Company.
The company boasted quite a few victories including the launching of the world-famous Shinkansen railway, but its debt was growing much faster than the list of successes. By 1987, for every 100 yen JNR earned, it was spending about 147 yen!

In order to save the situation, the once-promising company was privatized and divided into 7 different companies (6 managing passenger services and one operating freight trains). This "Big Seven" formed Japan Railway Group, the heart of Japan railway system, and opened a new chapter in the history of Japanese rail. Nowadays, this union handles over 70% of all Japan train network operations and keeps the position of a key player in the field. The remaining 30% are managed by numerous private and third-sector railway companies. Over a hundred small enterprises offer connections between the major cities of the country, although they serve exclusively private train lines. Considering the number of such private businesses, it's hardly a surprise that some of the railway routes they service overlap, but mostly each company strives to operate mostly unique railway routes.

The third-sector Japan train companies manage the smallest share of passenger traffic. This group includes all organizations that were funded jointly by the regional governments and private train companies.

Japan Rail Lines

Japan rail system is among the most advanced in the world with a total length of the train lines of 30 625 km (19 029 mi). But despite such an impressive number, the Japanese rail system is very efficient and easy to navigate even if you visit the country for the first time. The job of naming a new (or renaming an existing) line is a concern of a railway operator who is in charge of servicing the route. All lines with a very few exceptions boast unique names, indicated of train tickets. And, of course, the names are not random and usually are closely connected to the train line they indicate. For example, the lines are named after the city/region/district the lines go through, indicate the direction they go, or have something to do with the history of the particular area they cover.

Guide of Japan Trains

If you are interested in Japanese train travel, it's good to keep in mind that there are five main types of trains in Japan, depending on the number of stops they make along the way.

Shinkansen and limited express trains are meant for high-speed travel and are the smartest option to choose when you need an intercity connection, traveling fast, and making the least number of stops. Express, rapid, and local trains boast much slower travel times, offer less comfort during the journey, and serve a much bigger number of railway stations. All that makes them a go-to option when a person needs to get around the city or explore the nearby area, but not the smartest way to go for a traveler who has something grander in mind.

Main Types of Trains in Japan

Soon, the country will offer even more possibilities for high-speed travel. The Maglev train, Japan's future railway star, will start serving the Chuo Shinkansen line around 2030, connecting Tokyo with Nagoya (and Osaka a few years later). Maglev train will offer astonishingly fast travel times, connecting Tokyo with Nagoya in just 40 minutes, while a Shinkansen train needs about 1.5 hours to cover the distance between the cities.

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Most Traveled Japanese Train Lines