The Chugoku region at the western end of Honshu is comprised of the prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima, Tottori, Shimane and Yamaguchi. The Chugoku Mountains run through the middle of this long, thin part of Honshu. The winters are mild and relatively dry south of the mountains along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. There are heavy winter snowfalls north of the mountains facing the Sea of Japan. Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures are in the southern San'yo district, while Tottori and Shimane prefectures are in the northern San'in district. Yamaguchi Prefecture, at the western end of Honshu, straddles both districts.
The side of the region facing the Seto Inland Sea has a good environment with a mild climate and calm seas, making it ideal for coastal shipping and explaining the presence of relatively large cities and thriving coastal industrial zones. Shipbuilding as well as chemical and heavy industries are important here.
To the north, the land facing the Sea of Japan endures severe winters. In the old days, kitamae trading boats plied the coastal waters and brought prosperity. However, due to the growth along other transportation corridors after the Meiji Restoration (1868), the region became a backwater and the population declined.
The two large cities of Okayama and Hiroshima are regional centres. Okayama has become an important transportation node following the opening of the Honshu–Shikoku bridges in 1988. Hiroshima is well-known as the site of the first atomic bombing, and is the only city in the region designated by government ordinance.
Chugoku has three national parks: the Inland Sea, San'in Coast, and Daisen-Oki. Hiroshima Prefecture has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine.
The region's trunk rail lines are:
|•||JR West's San'yo Shinkansen (Shin Osaka–Hakata (Fukuoka), 622.3 km)
|•||JR West's San'yo main line along the Seto Inland Sea (Kobe–Moji, 512.7 km)
|•||JR West's San'in main line along the Sea of Japan (Kyoto–Hatabu, 673.8 km)
The San'yo Shinkansen joins the Tokaido Shinkansen at Shin Osaka, forming Japan's most important rail axis. The narrow-gauge San'yo main line, which follows the same transportation corridor in the district, has overnight sleeper and rail freight traffic, but its main role now is to link cities within the region.
In the north along the San'in main line, the population base is shrinking. The line has very few passengers travelling its entire length—passengers to and from major cities along the coast generally take north–south connector lines to the San'yo Shinkansen corridor. The only electrified sections are between Kyoto and Kinosaki (Hyogo Prefecture), and between Yonago and Nishi Izumo.
The following north–south routes have limited-express services linking cities on the Sea of Japan with the San'yo Shinkansen:
|•||Tottori to Osaka: Inbi Line and other lines, including line operated by Chizu Express
|•||Yonago and Izumo-shi to Okayama: Hakubi Line
|•||Hamada and Masuda to Shin Yamaguchi: Yamaguchi Line
Some other lines, such as the Tsuyama, Fukuen, Kisuki and Mine lines, also link the north and south coasts, but offer no express services. Along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, the Ako, Kure, Gantoku, Ube and other branch lines feed to the San'yo main line.
The suburban populations of Okayama and Hiroshima are growing and generating greater ridership on the urban transit systems. Okayama Electric Tramway and Hiroshima Electric Railway both operate tramways in their respective cities. Hiroshima also has a guided transportation system operated by Hiroshima Rapid Transit.
Population density is low away from the cities, creating challenges for local services offered by public–private businesses such as Nishikigawa Railway, Wakasa Railway and Ibara Railway, all of which are trying to attract more passengers.
The San'yo Shinkansen started as an extension to the Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo–Osaka). It opened as far as Okayama in 1972, and reached Hakata (Fukuoka)—the present terminus—in 1975. The passenger density is lower than that of the Tokaido Shinkansen. The track was designed for high speed, so almost the entire line is elevated or tunnelled. Indeed, the numerous tunnels are a characteristic of the San'yo Shinkansen. The whole line from Shin Osaka to Hakata is operated by JR West, unlike the narrow-gauge San'yo main line, which is operated jointly by JR West and JR Kyushu east and west of Shimonoseki, respectively. Kodama (Echo) shinkansen trains stop at every station and most run back and forth along the line. However, many of the faster Nozomi (Hope) and Hikari (Light) trains provide through services onto the Tokaido Shinkansen.
Fukuoka has an airport very close to the city centre, pushing the shinkansen into a competitive struggle with air and resulting in higher speeds and better services.
|•||Higher speeds: In 1989, the Grand Hikari reached 230 km/h on the San'yo Shinkansen, using improved Series 100N rolling stock; in 1997, the Series 500 Nozomi achieved a world record maximum speed of 300 km/h on the same line.
|•||Improved services: In 1988, Series 0 West Hikari standard cars raised comfort levels by changing from 3 + 2 seats per row to 2 + 2. In 2000, West Hikari services were replaced by the Series 700 Hikari Rail Star trains with 2 + 2 wide seats per row, offering comfort levels for reserved-seat passengers equal to those in executive-class (Green) cars. In addition, more through services were added to make travel between localities such as Shizuoka Prefecture and Okayama or Hiroshima more attractive by rail than by air.
Kodama services are generally four- or six-car train sets, and even the faster Hikari services are generally eight-car train sets that do not leave the line. However, Nozomi and other trains offering through services onto the Tokaido Shinkansen have 16 cars.
San'yo main line
Right from the late 19th century, the San'yo main line with its connection to the Tokaido main line has been a major route through western Japan. However, the San'yo Shinkansen took over the role of transporting long-distance rail passengers (except overnight travel) in this transportation corridor in 1972. Today, the San'yo main line is used mainly for freight and relatively short intercity travel. Many container trains use the line, linking Greater Tokyo and the Kansai district with the San'yo district and Kyushu. Demand for freight services is heavy in the Chugoku region due to the many cities and industrial zones alongside the line. Overnight sleepers also use the line, although passenger levels are dropping because of the faster shinkansen trains, the growing convenience of air travel, and the development of express buses. Sleeper trains currently offer three daily return runs between Tokyo and the Chugoku region (and onward to Kyushu), one between Tokyo and Shikoku and the San'in district, and two between Kansai and Kyushu. (A train that is coupled partway along the route is counted as one train.) There are many vacant seats except during busy holiday travel periods at the year end, etc. Nevertheless, passengers are giving positive feedback about the new Series 285 all-private sleeping cars introduced in 1998 on the Sunrise Seto (Tokyo–Takamatsu) and Sunrise Izumo (Tokyo–Izumo-shi) services operating over part of the route via the Hakubi Line.
The San'yo main line offers many appealing choices for intercity travel. The Sun Liner rapid express between Okayama and Fukuyama runs every 30 minutes, using Series 117 cars (two doors per side with cross-seating). In the Hiroshima area, the City Liner rapid express runs at 30-minute intervals during daytime hours, supplemented by the Commuter Liner during the morning and evening rush hours. The Akiji Liner offers through services onto the Kure Line. In Yamaguchi Prefecture, many JR West trains provide through services through the Kammon Tunnel (3.6 km) to JR Kyushu stations in northern Kyushu. Some trains offer through services onto the Ube Line from the San'yo main line.
The following lines branch from the San'yo main line:
|•||Ako Line (57.4 km) from Aioi (Hyogo Prefecture) to Higashi Okayama (Okayama Prefecture) both also on San'yo main line
|•||Uno Line (32.9 km) from Okayama to Uno (both in Okayama Prefecture)—The northern section of this line is also used by trains crossing from Honshu to Shikoku on the Seto Ohashi Line.
|•||Kibi Line (20.4 km) from Okayama to Soja (both in Okayama Prefecture)—Soja is on the Hakubi Line.
|•||Kure Line (87.0 km) from Mihara to Kaitaichi (both in Hiroshima Prefecture and both on San'yo main line)
|•||Gantoku Line (43.7 km) from Iwakuni to Kushigahama (both in Yamaguchi Prefecture and both on San'yo main line)
|•||Ube Line (33.2 km) from Shin Yamaguchi to Ube (both in Yamaguchi Prefecture and both on San'yo main line)
|•||Onoda Line (11.6 km) from Ino to Onoda (both in Yamaguchi Prefecture)—The line links the Ube Line at Ino with the San'yo main line at Onoda; a 2.3-km spur runs from Suzumeda on the Onoda Line to Nagato Motoyama.
All these branch lines except the Kibi Line are electrified and many offer through services onto the San'yo main line.
San'in main line
This line runs through an area with little urbanization and most sections are not electrified, so the line is no longer a major long-distance route. Two overnight sleeper trains do offer long-distance travel: the Izumo limited express from Tokyo to Izumo-shi, and the Daisen (place name) express from Osaka to Yonago (partly taking the Fukuchiyama Line). All other trains on the San'in main line, including freight trains, use only parts of the line, or turn off onto a north–south connector to the Seto Inland Sea coast.
The San'in main line lost its role as a long-distance main line because it is far from major transportation corridors; has a declining trackside population; is not electrified; and has difficulties keeping services on schedule due to a problem with the Amarube Viaduct. This bridge, which is one of Japan's longest (310 m) and highest (41 m), is located between Yoroi and Amarube in Hyogo Prefecture. A train was blown off the bridge during a severe winter gale in 1986 and bridge crossings have frequently been curtailed during strong winds since then.
At present, the only limited-express trains offering through services between Hyogo and Tottori prefectures are the above-mentioned Izumo and the Hamakaze (Beach wind) from Osaka to Tottori or Hamasaka (Hyogo Prefecture) running via the Bantan Line (see JRTR 37, pp. 44–51).
West of Tottori, there are express services using new Series 187 diesel-powered rolling stock: the Super Matsukaze (Pine wind) from Tottori to Masuda in Shimane Prefecture, and the Super Oki (island name) from Tottori to Shin Yamaguchi. The Isokaze (Shore wind) runs from Masuda to Kokura in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Local services are even more segmented than on the San'yo main line. Typical examples are: Kyoto to Kinosaki in Hyogo Prefecture on an electrified section; Kinosaki (or Toyooka) to Hamasaka (both in Hyogo Prefecture); Hamasaka to Tottori; Tottori to Yonago (both in Tottori Prefecture); Yonago to Masuda; Masuda to Nagato-shi in Yamaguchi Prefecture; and Nagato-shi to Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
The line also supports the Tottori Liner (Tottori–Yonago) and the Aqua Liner (Yonago–Masuda) intercity rapid services.
The San'in main line has two branch lines: the 17.9-km Sakai Line from Yonago to Sakai Minato, and the 2.2-km San'in main line branch from Nagato-shi to Senzaki (both in Yamaguchi Prefecture).
North–south connector lines
Years ago, north–south connector lines were built to link communities on the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan. When the San'yo Shinkansen started running, some of connector lines remained local, secondary lines while others grew in importance and offered limited-express services bound for shinkansen stations. Typical examples of the latter are the Fukuchiyama (see JRTR 37 pp. 44–51), Hakubi, Yamaguchi and Inbi lines, as well as the Chizu Express operated by a public–private business with through operations on the Inbi Line.
The 138.4-km Hakubi Line runs from Kurashiki (in Okayama Prefecture on the San'yo main line) to Hoki Daisen (in Tottori Prefecture on the San'in main line). When the San'yo Shinkansen opened, Yakumo (place name) limited expresses began frequent services between Okayama and Yonago (Tottori Prefecture) and Izumo-shi (Shimane Prefecture). In 1982, the San'in main line was electrified by Japanese National Railways (JNR) as far as Chiinomiya (now Nishi Izumo) just west of Izumo-shi and Series 381 rolling stock with a tilting mechanism was introduced to increase speeds on curves and offer more frequent services. Today, the Hakubi Line is an important connector linking the Seto Inland Sea coast to the central San'in district. The above-mentioned Sunrise Izumo limited express also uses the line.
The 93.9-km Yamaguchi Line runs from Shin Yamaguchi (in Yamaguchi Prefecture on the San'yo Shinkansen) to Masuda (in Shimane Prefecture on the San'in main line). It is not electrified, but is used by the Super Oki limited expresses feeding the San'yo Shinkansen. The Yamaguchi Line was the first in Japan to see the rebirth of steam in 1979 when JNR started hauling the SL Yamaguchi-go using a Class C57 steam locomotive.
Chizu Express operates a 56.1-km line from Kamigori (Hyogo Prefecture) to Chizu. JNR started building the line in 1966, but abandoned the project. It was subsequently taken up by a public–private business and opened in 1994. The most important trains are the Super Hakuto (White rabbit), which runs from Kyoto on the Tokaido and San'yo main lines, switches to the Chizu Express, and then runs through on the Inbi Line from Chizu to Tottori. Some runs continue to Kurayoshi on the San'in main line. Another important train is the Super Inaba (region name), which runs from Okayama, follows the San'yo main line, and then takes the same route as the Super Hakuto from Kamigori.
The local, secondary north–south connector lines are:
|•||Kishin Line (158.1 km) from Himeji (Hyogo Prefecture) to Niimi (on Hakubi Line in Okayama Prefecture )
|•||Tsuyama Line (58.7 km) from Okayama to Tsuyama (on Kishin Line in Okayama Prefecture)
|•||Fukuen Line (79.4 km) from Fukuyama (on San'yo main line in Hiroshima Prefecture) to Shiomachi (on Geibi Line in Hiroshima Prefecture)
|•||Geibi Line (159.1 km) from Bichu Kojiro (on Hakubi Line in Okayama Prefecture) to Hiroshima
|•||Kisuki Line (81.9 km) from Shinji (on San'in main line in Shimane Prefecture) to Bingo Ochiai (on Geibi Line in Hiroshima Prefecture)
|•||Sanko Line (108.1 km) from Gotsu (on San'in main line in Shimane Prefecture) to Miyoshi (on Geibi Line in Hiroshima Prefecture)
|•||Kabe Line (14.0 km) from Yokogawa (on San'yo main line in Hiroshima Prefecture) to Kabe (in Hiroshima Prefecture)
|•||Mine Line (46.0 km) from Asa (on San'yo main line in Yamaguchi Prefecture) to Nagato-shi (on San'in main line in Yamaguchi Prefecture)
All these lines face difficult economic times because of falling passenger levels.
The Fukuyama–Fuchu section of the Fukuen Line and the Kabe Line are electrified. Both were purchased from private railways, and added to the government railways' network during WWII. Today, they serve suburban areas of their respective cities (Fukuyama and Hiroshima). None of the other lines have been electrified and costs are being cut by measures such as running small diesel railcars.
Private railways in the Chugoku region are far smaller than those in Greater Tokyo or the Kansai (Osaka) district. Local private railway operations consist of tramways, new guided transport systems, public–private (third) sector operations, and regional railway companies.
The two regional cities of Okayama and Hiroshima have tramways.
Okayama Electric Tramway operates the 3.05-km Higashiyama and the 1.63-km Seikibashi lines. Both are 600-Vdc double-track lines with a gauge of 1067 mm and neither has a segregated right of way. During the last few years, the company has promoted its system by introducing ultra-low-floor light rail vehicles (ULF-LRVs) with inner-city flat fares of ¥100 (= US$0.97).
Hiroshima Electric Railway's 600-Vdc network consists of 19.0 km of tramways and 16.1 km of light rail all at 1435-mm gauge. The total fleet numbers 267 carriages (108 tramcars and 159 LRVs). The popular cars have a mixed parentage—some were inherited from the Kansai district and some came from Hannover and Dortmund in Germany. The company has introduced some ULF-LRVs over the last few years, and operates what has become one of Japan's busiest tramways. The light rail line takes passengers to the ferry to Miyajima Island where Itsukushima Shrine is located, and provides through connections on the urban tram network, offering convenient transit for some suburban residents. (For more details, see the special feature on LRT systems on pp. 10–16 and pp. 30–40 in JRTR 38.)
New guided transport systems in Hiroshima
Urban growth on the outskirts of Hiroshima has prompted the development of two innovative suburban routes. One is the 18.4-km Astram Line, a guided transport system operated by Hiroshima Rapid Transit. It opened in 1994, and runs from Hondori in central Hiroshima to Koiki Koen-mae in the hilly region to the west. The entire line is double-tracked, and runs on elevated track in the suburbs and underground in the city centre. The six-car train sets seat 286 passengers, and run at a minimum interval of 2 minutes and 30 seconds during the morning rush hour.
The other (operated by Sky Rail Service) is Japan's first cable-powered suspended transport system. This unique cross between a cableway and monorail opened in 1998, and runs 1.3 km from Seno Station on the JR West San'yo main line to the New Town urban development project in the eastern suburbs.
Regional railway companies
One of the biggest regional railways operating in rural parts of the region is the public–private Chizu Express described above.
All the other lines use a gauge of 1067 mm and none—except the line operated by Ichibata Electric Railroad—have been electrified.
The origin of the single-track mostly-elevated Ibara Railway goes back to when JNR started building a line in 1966, but then abandoned the project as part of restructuring. As happened with Chizu Express, construction was taken up by another group, which opened the 41.7-km line from Kan'nabe (on the Fukuen Line in Hiroshima Prefecture) to Soja (on the Hakubi Line in Okayama Prefecture) in 1999. Some trains offer through services on the Fukuen Line to as far as Fukuyama.
Nishikigawa Railway was established in 1987, and assumed control of the JR West's Gan'nichi Line in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The 32.7-km line runs from Kawanishi (on the JR West's Gantoku Line) to Nishiki-cho. All trains offer through services on the Gantoku Line as far as Iwakuni. The line runs through the scenic Nishikigawa Valley but the local population is declining, making finances difficult.
Wakasa Railway took over the Wakasa Line from JNR in 1986. The line runs 19.2 km from Koge (on the JR West Inbi Line) to Wakasa. Some trains offer through services on the Inbi Line as far as Tottori. The trackside population is declining with high-school students forming the bulk of the passenger base so the company is in financial difficulties.
Mizushima Rinkai Railway in Okayama Prefecture is the last remaining local railway of the many that once operated along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. (Some, such as the Fukuen and Kabe lines, were purchased and absorbed into the larger railway network.) The line goes back to 1943, when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built it for wartime freight transport. In 1948, the operator was granted a local railway licence for both passenger and freight transport. The Kurashiki municipal government operated the line until it was taken over by Mizushima Rinkai Railway in 1970. Although the line is 16.5-km long, passengers can only travel 10.4 km from Kurashiki-shi to Mitsubishi Jiko-mae. The track passes through built-up areas of Mizushima City, so revenues from the fare box are similar to income from freight haulage and the finances are in good health.
Ichibata Electric Railroad in Shimane Prefecture opened in 1911. Today, it has only two lines: the 33.9-km Kita Matsue Line from Dentetsu Izumo-shi to Matsue Shinji-ko Onsen, and the 8.3-km Taisha Line from Kawato (on the Kita Matsue Line) to Izumo Taisha-mae. Part of the former line passes along scenic Lake Shinji. The JR West San'in main line runs along the other side of the lake and interurban services in the Izumo area have recently been improved, allowing Ichibata Electric to increase the frequency of local trains in this transport niche.