Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 39 (pp.43–51)

Railway Operators in Japan 13
Shikoku Region
Yuichiro Kishi

The two Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) used to make Shikoku mean ‘four countries,’ a name that originates from the four old fiefs of Iyo, Sanuki, Awa, and Tosa, which are now called Ehime, Kagawa, Tokushima and Kochi prefectures, respectively. With a land area of only about 18,800 km2 and a population of 4.1 million, Shikoku is the smallest of the four largest islands comprising the Japanese archipelago (Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku). Each of Shikoku's prefectures has a coastline; Ehime, Kagawa, and Tokushima border the Seto Inland Sea separating Shikoku from the main island of Honshu. Ehime and Kochi both face Kyushu, but part of Kochi also faces the Pacific Ocean. The topography is rugged terrain and the centre of the island has steep mountains including Mt Ishizuchi (1982 m) and Mt Tsurugi (1955 m). Narrow coastal plains are found along the coasts of the Seto Inland Sea and Pacific sides of the island. The main cities are centred on the coast and several large cities on the Seto Inland Sea have populations in the order of 50,000–100,000. Each prefectural capital is on the coast and the estimated populations in October 2003 were 480,000, 340,000, 330,000 and 270,000 for Matsuyama, Takamatsu, Tokushima, and Kochi, respectively.
The north and south sides of Shikoku are divided by central mountains and have different regional characteristics—the north side has had long cultural and trading relationships with the south side of the Chugoku region of Honshu on the opposite side of the Seto Inland Sea and comprised of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures. The north-east side of Tokushima Prefecture has seen deepening relations with the Kansai district. Various large-scale heavy industries have grown along the Seto coastal belt in the cities of Matsuyama, Imabari, Niihama, etc., and some have populations in excess of 100,000. In contrast, other than Kochi City, the Pacific coast of southern Shikoku has no large cities with a population exceeding 100,000.

Map: Railway Lines in Shikoku Region

Growth of Railway Network

Shikoku's transportation network was for a long time centred around coastal shipping including extensive exchange with the larger neighbouring islands of Kyushu and Honshu. The opening up of westward shipping routes during the Edo period (1603–1867) saw the long-term development of coastal ports in the Seto Inland Sea. Small- and medium-sized coastal shipping businesses were established west of the Kansai district after the Meiji period (1868–1912) and the opening of the railway between Osaka and Kobe in 1874 forced steamship operations to shift to coastal shipping routes in the Seto Inland Sea, improving sea transport.
As a result, railway operators on Shikoku were slow to develop their networks, restricting their operations to small local services centred on the major cities. This explains why Matsuyama was the last prefectural capital in Japan (excluding Okinawa) to get a government railways' station (1927) and why the railway networks of the four Shikoku prefectures were not linked into a network until 1935.
The October 1888 opening of the private Iyo Railway between Mitsuhama Bay and Matsuyama is noteworthy because not only was it the first railway in Shikoku but it was also the third private railway in Japan, and was built before the opening of private lines in Hokkaido and Kyushu. The specifications were simple with a gauge of 762 mm. In the following year, Sanuki Railway was opened linking Marugame (a key point in the coastal shipping network on the Seto Inland Sea) and Kotohira (near the famous Kotohira Shrine) via Tadotsu. It was soon extended to Takamatsu, becoming the predecessor of JR Shikoku's Dosan and Yosan lines today. Interestingly, in December 1904, Sanuki Railway was taken over by San'yo Railway (the predecessor of the JR West's San'yo main line today), which had tracks running along the Honshu coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Since the aim of San'yo Railway was to link Honshu and Shikoku, it needed to build a ferry, becoming an unusual case of a railway operator uniting its railway network separated by a sea!
Tokushima Railway (now JR Shikoku's Tokushima Line) opened in 1899 to westward line from Tokushima along the Yoshino River; 1904 saw the opening of Tosa Electric Railway in Kochi Prefecture, the first electric railway in Shikoku, marking the birth of rail services in all four prefectures of Shikoku.
Unlike the private investment in local railways, the government railways made absolutely no attempt to build lines in Shikoku until 1906 when it adopted a policy of extending the national main-line network by purchasing existing private railways. Subsequent development of the railway infrastructure was promoted by extending, realigning, etc., the purchased private lines. Extensions to the lines forming today's JR Shikoku Yosan and Tokushima lines were opened in quick succession from 1913. During and after the Taisho period (1912–1926) as the railway infrastructure came into government hands, heavy emphasis was placed on linking up local railway networks in different regions. The Yosan Line running east–west parallel to the south coast of the Seto Inland Sea linked the cities of Matsuyama and Takamatsu in 1927 while the north–south Dosan Line was pushed through the central mountain range to connect with the previously opened Tokushima Line in 1935, finally linking the four prefectural capitals by rail. In addition, lines were gradually built around the Shikoku coast to link the smaller peripheral cities. As well as purchasing the private forerunner of today's Naruto Line in the north-east of Shikoku, progress was made in completing the Kotoku Line between Takamatsu and Tokushima by 1935. At the same time, a private line running south from Tokushima was purchased and extended successively towards Cape Muroto, finally reaching Mugi in southern Tokushima Prefecture by 1942. Elsewhere in west Shikoku, by 1945, the Yosan Line had been extended from Matsuyama to reach Uwajima, the major city in the south-west of Ehime, where a connection was made with the purchased, upgraded and extended Uwajima Line (now part of the JR Shikoku's Yodo Line).
After WWII, moves were made to develop the railway infrastructure in the south-west and south-east parts of Shikoku with the aim of developing local resources and the Yodo and Nakamura lines (now Tosa Kuroshio Railway's Nakamura Line) were opened. However, a freeze was put on further construction while the JNR reforms were in progress. During the latter part of this period, parts of some of these lines were transfered to local governments and reopened as third-sector railway companies like Asa Kaigan Railway, and the Sukumo and Gomen–Nahari lines of Tosa Kuroshio Railway.
Finally, the 1988 opening of the Seto Ohashi Line linking Shikoku with Honshu across the Honshu–Shikoku bridges (JRTR 11, pp. 4–12, pp. 60–63, and JRTR 13 pp. 50–53) marked a turning point in opening up Shikoku to the rest of the Japanese railway network as described later in this article.

Photo: Much of JR Shikoku's network runs along the sea with ocean scenery. There are temporary stations on the Mugi Line for summer bathers.
Photo: JR Shikoku's Takamatsu Station (built in 2001) is the busiest station with 13,000 passengers daily.

Railway Modernization

Not only did Shikoku's main lines see few extensions or upgrades after the early days, they also remained largely unchanged after WWII with most trains continuing to be hauled solely by steam locomotives. There were absolutely no electrified sections and there were also many difficulties in increasing train speeds due to the poor track conditions on many sections. As a consequence, from the late 1960s, JNR started putting a great deal of effort into upgrading Shikoku's railway services based on the catchphrase, ‘low-cost, quick and no waiting.’ In concrete terms, this meant speeding up operations by introduction of diesel vehicles as well as increasing frequencies on lightly used sections through use of railbus. In addition, to relieve the bottleneck of the single-track Yosan Line around Takamatsu, double-tracking programme was undertaken along with gradual introduction of coupled operation of express trains over some track sections with decoupling at a junction. Today, the system has been completely electrified so most express services have been elevated to limited-express services to make the best use of the advantages of electric rolling stock.
Compared to the Tokaido and San'yo main lines on Honshu, main lines on Shikoku have many sections with poor track characteristics, such as sharp curves and high grades, and track realignment and new construction have been ongoing projects since the first JNR days. Typical recent large-scale works were the 1986 realignment of the Yosan Line via the 6-km shortcut further inland to eliminate the endless series of sharp curves along the older coastal route and shorten the journey time between Matsuyama and Uwajima. Similarly, many difficult mountainous sections on the Dosan Line made speed increases difficult and there were also frequent rockfalls, etc., resulting in frequent upgrade works. Especially noteworthy was the large-scale realignment using a new tunnel and bridge near Tosa Kitagawa Station and the interesting use of a truss bridge incorporating a station and signal box.
Double-tracking totalling 34.1 km was undertaken between Tokushima and Sako on the Kotoku Line in 1963; between Takamatsu and Utazu in Kagawa Prefecture on the Yosan Line from 1965 to 1970; between Marugame and Tadotsu on the Yosan Line; and immediately before the opening of the Honshu–Shikoku bridges when the double-tracked Seto Ohashi Line (18.1 km) was opened. No further double tracking has been performed since JR Shikoku took over from JNR but faster speeds have been achieved on single-track sections by building a straight passing track at stations.
The introduction of centralized traffic control (CTC) on the Dosan Line between Tadotsu and Kochi in July 1967 was the third case in JNR, with the entire Shikoku network coming completely under CTC in November 1991.
Electrification of the main-line network was greatly delayed and did not start until the last days of JNR when parts of the Yosan and Dosan lines in Kagawa Prefecture were electrified in March 1987. The section of the Yosan Line between Takamatsu and Matsuyama and Iyo-shi was not electrified until 1993 and there are now a great many electric services.
In addition to the above-described infrastructure upgrades, policies such as introduction of tilting trains have also been adopted. In 1989, soon after JR Shikoku took over operations from JNR, the company developed and introduced its Series 2000 DMU limited express—the world's first natural pendulum tilting diesel rolling stock—for faster operations mainly on the Dosan Line. In addition to reducing carriage weight, the high-output diesel engine and tilting body allow faster speeds through curved sections, thereby decreasing journey times. Moreover, in 1992, JR Shikoku increased maximum speeds to 130 km/h with the introduction of Series 8000 limited-express electric services, soon followed in 1998 by new Series 2000 DMUs with a more powerful diesel engine capable of operations at 130 km/h. These introductions of new rolling stock supporting faster operations allowed JR Shikoku to eliminate the older express rolling stock remaining from the JNR days in advance of other JR operators. Now, 90% of JR Shikoku limited-express services are operated using these new series.
Due to these efforts, 22, 41, and 27 minutes have been cut from the journey times between Takamatsu and Matsuyama, Kochi, and Tokushima, respectively, compared to the times soon after the start of JR Shikoku in 1987.

Table: Size and Financial Status of Railways in Shikoku
Table: Passenger Volume and Density by Railway Company
Photo: Series 2000 tilting limited express entering Utazu Station on Yosan Line

Linking Shikoku and Honshu

The nearest two points on each side of the strait separating Shikoku and Honshu are only a few kilometers apart. The coastal regions on each side have long had thriving relations and their regional economies are deeply linked. As a consequence, a large number of ferry services linking Honshu and Shikoku were started, leading to excess competition. The earliest two railways in Shikoku—Iyo Railway and Sanuki Railway—both started laying tracks to provide access to the main ferry ports. Iyo Railway soon realized that a ferry was needed to serve passengers and freight arriving at Mitsuhama Port, while Sanuki Railway came to the same conclusion about passenger and freight demand at Tadotsu Port. In 1903, a steamship company was established to link up with the railways and ferries were soon operating between the cities of Takamatsu and Okayama and between Tadotsu and Onomichi. In 1910, the base of operations on the Honshu side was moved to Uno, which was more convenient for land and sea links and the steamer services became focused on the route between Takamatsu and Uno. Meanwhile, Takamatsu Station was also moved to a more convenient location for changing to the ferry and a floating railway bridge was soon built to facilitate between the rail and ferry. As a consequence, both stations became able to live up to their reputations as the gateways linking Honshu and Shikoku. Uko (meaning Uno–Takamatsu) ferries became the major transport corridor between Honshu and Shikoku.
They continued in this historic role for another 78 years until the 18.1-km Honshu–Shikoku bridges were opened in April 1988. The Line crosses the Honshu–Shikoku bridges, a chain of six suspension cable-stayed and truss bridges spanning the narrow 9.4-km strait between Kojima on Honshu and Sakaide on Shikoku, providing the first fixed road and rail links. The bridges carry an expressway on upper deck and a double track railway on the lower deck, on which JR Shikoku operates about 160 passenger and freight services each day. Since the opening of the Honshu–Shikoku bridges, JR Shikoku Marine Liner rapid services running at about 130 km/h have cut the journey time between Takamatsu and Okayama to about 55 minutes compared to the old Uko ferries that used to make the link in about 1 hour and 40 minutes (or about 1 hour by hovercraft).
Moreover, the opening of the Honshu–Shikoku bridges created both new and substitute passenger demand as shown by the approximate 2.5-fold increase to 30,000 passengers a day travelling on the Seto Ohashi Line immediately after the line opened compared to 11,700 passengers a day in the last months of the Uko ferries. We can surmise that some of this increase has come from passengers on other ferries also transferring to the Seto Ohashi Line.
On the other hand, JR Shikoku has seen major changes to passenger flows and train operations; previously, the main flow was from Kochi and Matsuyama to Takamatsu but after the opening of the Seto Ohashi Line, about 70% of passengers from Utazu cross to Honshu. Much of the 70% flow is composed of people changing to the San'yo Shinkansen at Okayama and going to the Kansai district.
In particular, the Seto Ohashi Line is said to have greatly improved convenient access between Kochi, Matsuyama and the Kansai district. Additionally, five- to seven-car Marine Liner rapid expresses depart from Takamatsu every 30 minutes during the day, carrying an average of 13,067 passengers each day during FY2002 and causing relatively congested travel conditions during the morning and evening rush hours. In fact, the numbers of workers and students crossing the Seto Inland Sea grew massively from just 21 people each day towards the end of the Uko ferry services to 2795 each day in FY1996.
As a consequence, universities in Kagawa Prefecture have seen reverse growth in numbers with more students from Okayama Prefecture in Honshu than local students from Kagawa Prefecture.

Photo: Series 5100 Marine Liner rapid train with double-decker car linking Honshu and Shikoku

Competition with Expressways

Modern road network was slow in coming to Shikoku. Interestingly, even Iyo Railway—Shikoku's first line—was built between Matsuyama and the main gateway port of Mitsuhama because the road conditions were so poor. Under these circumstances, local railways were urgently requested by the inhabitants of interior regions where roads were poor and railway construction had a major impact on local economies. This explains why railways long remained the main mode of land transport in Shikoku compared to other regions of Japan. However, around 1970, the focus shifted towards planning for high-speed road infrastructure and the priority gradually swung in favour of expressways when parts of the Matsuyama Expressway opened in March 1985. Since JR Shikoku obtains most of its income from its railway business, it saw the shift from railways towards private motor transport caused by construction of a road network as an impending crisis that could be a deathblow for the company. To counter the problem, the company quickly set about staged upgrading of rail infrastructure that would support higher speeds as well as development of high-performance rolling stock that could run at higher operations speeds.
Meanwhile, expressway construction was progressing at fever pitch. Of the planned 663 km of road extensions, 222 km running east–west had been opened by July 2000 and 214.1 km of the remaining planned 441 km running north–south across the central mountain range were just opened in April this year to link all four of the island's prefectures.
As a consequence, most of JR Shikoku's main lines have a completed expressway running parallel to them and their railway business is faced with a severe situation. For example, a four-lane expressway running parallel with most of the Takamatsu–Matsuyama section of the Yosan Line (JR Shikoku's busiest line) was completed in 2003. Since this expressway offers a convenient shortcut compared to the Yosan Line that follows the Ehime coastline, automobiles can make the journey between the two cities in under 2 hours, which is shorter than the journey time required by limited expresses travelling at 130 km/h on the Yosan Line. As a result, passenger levels on the Yosan Line are dropping and are now only 80% of the level at the time of the boom following the opening of the Honshu–Shikoku bridges. Moreover, conditions on the Dosan Line linking the Seto Inland Sea side with Kochi have also become severe with a drop to 60% or 70% compared to the boom time.
Clearly, the older conventional railway lines on Shikoku are facing a crisis resulting from increased competition with expressways, but the Seto Ohashi Line, which was very successful soon after its opening in 1988, is also in crisis too. The 1998 opening of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge between Tokushima and Awajishima created a new direct link for automobiles between Kobe in Honshu and Shikoku and completion of the expressway network has seen a sudden surge in express buses making the journey between the major cities of the Kansai district and the island. Not only have the express buses managed to cut more than 1 hour off the journey time between Takamatsu, Tokushima and the Kansai district, but the bus fare is also only about one-half of the rail fare (including shinkansen charge). As a consequence, it is no exaggeration to say that the market share of rail and bus services between Tokushima and the Kansai district has been completely reversed in favour of buses.
As a result, the 10 to 11 million people using the Seto Ohashi Line annually soon after it opened in 1988 had dropped precipitously to between 8 and 9 million by FY2000. As a countermeasure, in addition to shortening journey times and increasing the number of new Series 5000 Marine Liner services, JR Shikoku is strengthening its transport capacity by making a joint investment with JR West to increase the number of platforms for its Seto Ohashi Line at JR West's Okayama Station.
On the other hand, the many single-track sections on the JR West's Uno Line connecting with the Seto Ohashi Line create a bottleneck on transport capacity so Okayama prefectural government, Shikoku's four prefectural governments, and JR West are promoting work to double-track some sections. In addition, commercialization of a so-called free-gauge train that can run on track sections with different gauges is being examined as a possible future method of allowing through operations between narrow-gauge lines in Shikoku and shinkansen on Honshu and elsewhere in Japan.

Photo: JR Shikoku's first electric Series 8000 limited express on Yosan Line linking Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture and Okayama on Honshu at 130 km/h

Urban Transport

The electrification works on parts of the Yosan and Dosan lines completed at the end of the JNR era were to prepare for the opening of the Seto Ohashi Line, but were also targeted at improving capacity on routes from the Takamatsu to south-west parts of Kagawa Prefecture. Furthermore, JR Shikoku embarked on a continuing electrification programme in Ehime Prefecture. In addition to reducing journey times, the frequency and quality of services was raised by introduction of new Series 7000 EMUs capable of driver-only operation. These efforts resulted in a large increase in the number of regular services offering more convenience for passengers. To raise the notch one level higher around Matsuyama, in March 2002, the number of rapid services was doubled, journey times were greatly shortened, and the timetable was revised to make it easier for passengers to understand.
Non-JR private lines still play an important role in Shikoku urban transport; companies in three of the prefectural capitals have extensive networks with long histories dating to before WWII; Takamatsu-Kotohira Electric Railroad in Takamatsu, Iyo Railway in Matsuyama, and Tosa Electric Railway in Kochi are all fully electric operations. Part of Iyo Railway and all of Tosa Electric Railway are defined as tramways by the Tramway Law.
Takamatsu-Kotohira Electric Railroad was formed by the wartime merger of three companies with tracks extending into the centre of Takamatsu and 16 bus companies. It has three lines totalling 60 km and is mainly supported by a customer base consisting of commuters and students travelling around Takamatsu. However, the number of passengers has fallen to nearly half of the peak levels and the bankruptcy of a related company in December 2001 forced it into bankruptcy as well. There were proposals to cut the route length but the complete network is being maintained for the time being while restructuring plans with assistance from the national, prefectural and municipal governments are being examined. Future plans for re-establishing a healthy business include upgrading rolling stock, introducing joint rail and bus ticketing using IC cards, building new stations, and providing Park & Ride car parks at all out-of-city stations.
Iyo Railway is the light railway described in Botchan, a novel set in Matsuyama by Soseki Natsume (1867–1916), as the ‘matchbox steam train.’ Today, it is principally a 36.6-km urban railway linking Matsuyama with nearby towns but it also has a 6.9-km suburban loop line within the city. The once-thriving Mitsuhama Port is now very quiet, but the Matsuyama Tourist Port for ferries to and from Honshu and Kyushu and nearby Takahama Station terminus are linked by frequent bus services.
The tramway uses popular reproductions of period tramcars to carry more than 8 million visitors a year to Dogo hot springs in Matsuyama. More recently, positive steps have been taken to revitalize the business by replacing old electric cars with modern low-floor vehicles.
Tosa Electric Railway started business in 1904 as an electric tramway serving Kochi and its surrounding areas. Today, it has a total network length of 25.3 km and is the oldest surviving tramway business in Japan. Unlike the previously described urban Iyo Railway which runs solely within Matsuyama, Tosa Electric Railway is a typical suburban railway that crosses Kochi to link with surrounding towns and villages. Tosa Electric Railway used to own a railway line in the south-east part of the prefecture and the electric tramway provided through operations on this line. As part of its strategy to revitalize business, the company has imported tramcars from Lisbon (Portugal), Stuttgart (Germany), Oslo (Norway), and Gratz (Austria). More recently, it tried introduction of low-floor articulated trams but it seems difficult to obtain sufficiently good returns on the investment and the plan has come to a halt with only one set.

Photo: Takamatsu-Kotohira Electric Railroad replaced old worn stock with carriages purchased from private railways in Tokyo and Nagoya Municipal Subway.
Photo: Lisbon tram dating from 1947 operated by Tosa Electric Railway

Third-Sector Local Lines

JNR's postwar railway construction was coming to an end after improvements on main-line infrastructure were finished and planners started construction of local lines with low riderships. Lines were constructed through regions with low trackside populations, such as the extreme end of the Dosan Line west of Kochi; the Yodo Line crossing Ehime and Kochi prefectures; the Nakamura and Sukumo lines branching from the Dosan Line to Uwajima via Sukumo; and the Asa Line passing through Kochi and Tokushima prefectures via Cape Muroto. When JNR urgently need to restructure its poor finances, it decided to freeze all construction of new lines with no good economic prospects and to dispose of loss-making local lines. In 1988, JR Shikoku abandoned three JNR lines but ownership of the Nakamura Line was transferred to Tosa Kuroshio Railway, a third-sector company, so only two lines with a total length not exceeding 8.8 km (excluding freight lines) were actually closed. The Yodo Line inherited by JR Shikoku was saved because there was no expressway parallel to the line and it is still in operation. However, there are future plans to build a high-grade road parallel to the line, so passenger trends are a focus of attention.
On the other hand, the Asa and Sukumo lines in Kochi and Tokushima prefectures—construction of which had been frozen and both of which had no prospects of ever opening—received investment from the prefectural governments and trackside municipalities enabling construction to continue with the intention of opening as a third-sector railway businesses. As a result, the Sukumo Line opened in 1997 as Tosa Kuroshio Railway's Sukumo Line, while the Asa Line in Kochi Prefecture opened in 2002 as the Tosa Kuroshio Railway Gomen–Nahari Line. The part of the Asa Line in Tokushima Prefecture became the Asa Kaigan Railway in 1992.
Tosa Kuroshio Railway's 23.6-km Sukumo Line is characterized as an extension of the JR Shikoku Dosan Line via Tosa Kuroshio Railway's 43.0-km Nakamura Line. It has reasonably good levels of passengers taking limited-express services from Takamatsu. Conversely, the 8.5-km Asa Kaigan Railway functions substantially as an extension of JR Shikoku's Mugi Line but since it runs mostly through sparsely populated local regions, the total number of passengers in FY2002 was just 100,000 and the company accrued an annual loss of more than ¥52 million (¥100 = US$0.97), a figure that matches the Tosa Kuroshio Railway, which is 10 times longer. The 42.7-km Gomen–Nahari Line was originally constructed as part of JNR's Asa Line with Asa Kaigan Railway, and is Shikoku's newest railway line. It is operated by the Committee for the Activation of the Gomen–Nahari Line, a group comprised of the prefectural government and trackside municipalities that provides support by holding local events, etc., to encourage ridership on the line and its future seems secure for the present. Bus services were running on a road parallel to the line before it opened but the appearance of a punctual railway offering express services and short journey times created severe competition and the number of bus passengers dropped by about 20% even after the bus fare was reduced to the same level as the rail fare.

Photo: Restored special tourist train hauled by diesel engine resembling steam locomotive on suburban tracks of Iyo Railway
Photo: Special-specification open carriages operate as part of some services on Gomen–Nahari Line of third-sector Tosa Kuroshio Railway opened in 2002.

Yuichiro Kishi
Mr Kishi is Curator of the Transportation Museum, Tokyo. He obtained Masters degree in 2000 from Tokyo Gakugei University. His main research interests are the management history of local private railways and the history of museum development. He is co-author of Zenkoku torokko ressha (Trolley Trains in Japan) published by the JTB.