|Roots of Railways and Services
Japan’s railways began in 1872 with the opening of the
first line between Shimbashi and Yokohama. Onboard
services started 3 years later when cushions were loaned
to passengers for sitting on; it was the beginning of an
inseparable bond between railways and services.
The origins of meal services for passengers date back to
when an inn named Shirokiya started selling two onigiri rice
balls and takuwan pickled radish wrapped in bamboo bark
at Utsunomiya Station in 1885. Subsequently, boxed meals
sold in stations across Japan came to be called ekiben from the Japanese words for station (eki) and boxed lunch
(bento). A huge variety of ekiben are still sold in stations, even featuring items such a local specialty foods.
|Start of Dining Car Services
Onboard meal services started in 1899 with the introduction
of dining cars. At the time, dining cars were only for first- and
second-class passengers. There was segregation because
the poor manners of many third-class passengers would
offend first- and second-class passengers and to prevent
third-class passengers from staying too long in dining cars,
which were much more comfortable than third-class seats!
Meals were oriented towards fashionable upper-class tastes,
so they were western style and normally not eaten by the general public. It is said that the railways wanted to also provide traditional Japanese cuisine, but the limited space
in dining cars prevented it. Third-class passengers were
allowed to use dining cars from 1901 when rail travel had come into common public use.
Dining-car operations expanded steadily and the various
companies entering the market fared well. Shortages due to
rationing during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45)
eventually became a problem, and discussions between
railway officials and dining car operators in 1938 led
to a merger of dining car operator management. Nippon
Shokudo Co., Ltd. was established and started operations
that year, becoming the predecessor of West Japan Railway Food Service Net Company.
Train services were temporarily halted in 1944 due to
the war, but restarted again in 1945 at the war’s end. Given
the opportunity provided by the resumption of train services,
dining cars were coupled to nearly all long-distance trains.
The negative effects of a monopoly by one company were
soon noted, and companies other than Nippon Shokudo were established in 1953.
Until 1958, meals were only served in the dining car, but
buffet cars were introduced starting with the first Kodama limit express. Kodama was described as a business express,
focused on business passengers. As a result, the dining car
was converted to a buffet where lower prices were easier
to use. Light meals and drinks were the main offerings in
buffet cars and their simplified design helped reduce the
initial costs. They also required fewer personnel because the
meals were relatively simple. The menu choice increased
after 1961 as the introduction of microwave ovens allowed quick reheating of frozen and refrigerated foods.
|Start of Shinkansen
The world’s first high-speed railway started in 1964 in
conjunction with the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. Before then,
the trip between Tokyo and Osaka took 6.5 hours but the Hikari soon cut the time to just 3 hours and 10 minutes (about 4 hours
in the first year). This made it possible to make same-day
return business trips between Tokyo and Osaka, contributing
to the booming growth of the Japanese economy.
Instead of conventional dining cars, the Kodama buffet
car was the only onboard meal service and it was possible
because of the much shorter travel times on the fast shinkansen trains.
Shinkansen services expanded westward across Japan,
reaching Okayama in 1972 to connect with the Shikoku and
San’yo regions (Tokyo–Okayama in 4 hours 10 minutes) and
then to Hakata on Kyushu in 1975 (Tokyo–Hakata: 6 hours
56 minutes). With the longer travel times, dining cars were
deemed necessary and construction of rolling stock for shinkansen dining cars started.
The standard-gauge shinkansen offered an opportunity
to improve comfort for dining car passengers; dining cars on
narrow-gauge lines had tables on both sides with a median
aisle allowing passengers to walk through the dining car
between the tables while others were eating. The
wider shinkansen cars enabled design of a wider
dining area on the carriage seaward side to give
passengers a view while enjoying a meal and the
aisle was moved to the landward mountain side,
allowing meals to be eaten with less disturbance.
However, this layout was not without problems.
Putting the aisle on the mountain side and
installing walls to prevent people passing through
seeing people eating blocked the view of Mt Fuji,
a renowned scenic gem and important symbol of
Japan. A reporter covering a press conference before the introduction of dining cars is said to have
pointed out that Mt Fuji could not be seen, but it was
too late to change the layout then, because the rolling
stock had been completed. Operations started as
they were, but many passengers complained about
the lack of a view of Mt Fuji, so windows were added
to the partitions 4 years later in 1974.
During this era, Japan started using the
‘restaurant industry’ index and onboard meal
service provider Nippon Shokudo held the top spot from the start of surveys in 1974 until 1978.
|Decline of Narrow-Gauge Dining Cars
Unlike the flourishing meal services on shinkansen,
meal services on conventional lines started declining
gradually in the 1970s. One reason was that operating
sections and travel times were shortened on narrow-gauge
lines running parallel with shinkansen lines as
they expanded westwards. In the end, dining cars
disappeared as more new trains were not coupled
with dining cars. Another factor behind the decline
was that the Hokuriku Tunnel fire in 1972 was thought
to have been caused by a coal-fired stove in the
dining car (it was later determined to have been
caused by an electrical short). As a result, meal
preparation using an open flame was prohibited, and older dining cars without electrical cooking
equipment could no longer be used. Japanese National
Railways (JNR) was facing a financial crisis and could not
afford to build replacements for older decommissioned dining
cars. Another factor was lack of available personnel. Securing
people for poorly paid jobs with tough working conditions was
difficult. There was also a shortage of personnel because many had transferred to limited expresses and shinkansen.
|Meal Services Environment
While onboard meal services centred on providing meals
in dining cars or buffets, sale of ekiben, snacks, cigarettes,
etc., in the carriages started using carts. One reason was
because of more purchase demand from passengers with
long travel times. There was also a need for meal services
because sales of goods in and around stations were weak at the time.
Train crews also needed meals, something that is still
true today on the long-distance Twilight Express sleeper
limited express between Osaka and Sapporo.
However, the fast-food boom in the 1980s with McDonalds
taking the top spot in 1982 saw more people bringing their own
food onto trains. This era also saw the opening of convenience
stores like Family Mart and 7-Eleven, and it was only a matter
of time before more people brought their own food onboard, marking a decrease in use of onboard services.
|JNR Privatization and Division
Japanese railways reached a major turning point in 1987
with the JNR privatization and division, splitting the national
railway operator into separate regional private companies.
Each regional railway company after privatization had
to be financially self-supporting, so they naturally had
different management policies. As a result, meal services
are naturally handled differently by region. The significance
of Nippon Shokudo continuing to operate nationwide as a
single entity also declined. Consequently, it too was split
up according to passenger railway boundaries 1 year after
JNR was privatized. West Japan Railway Food Service Net
Company initially split from Nippon Shokudo as a company
called Nisshoku Nishi Nihon to handle operations in the JR West operations area.
|Reborn Meal Services
Around this time, meal services on conventional lines
underwent a major review. Dining and buffet cars were
eliminated on all trains except long-distance sleeper limited
expresses, and only cart sales remained.
On the other hand, the new, faster Series 100 shinkansen
introduced in 1985 featured two split-level cars (No. 8 and
9) with a dining car on the top deck of car No. 8. Although
the older Series 0 had an aisle in part of the dining car,
the Series 100 moved the aisle along with the kitchen to
the lower deck, leaving the entire upper deck as a dining
car seating 44 people. Two lifts carried meals and dishes
up and down between the two decks. At that time, travel
between Tokyo and Hakata on the Series 100 took 5 hours
57 minutes, a drop of 1 hour from the first shinkansen service between the cities.
There were three types of Series 100 shinkansen trains.
In addition to the Grand Hikari with four split-level cars
including the dining car, there were cafeteria cars meeting
convenience store and family restaurant needs by providing
take-out Japanese, Western, and Chinese meals. They also
had conveniently sized items such as white rice, prepared
dishes, and desserts; passengers could choose what they wanted and eat at their seats.
In 1988, JR West introduced the West Hikari train using
modified Series 0 rolling stock for service between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. The idea was to provide a relaxed
and comfortable space where passengers could spend a
relaxing time, unlike on airlines with whom the company was
battling for market share. While the normal shinkansen seat
layout had five rows of seats in coach seats and four rows
in the Green Car (first class), this train had rows of seats in
coach too. Meals were served from a buffet car, because the 2 hours 59 minutes travel time between Shin-Osaka and
Hakata was relatively short. Although called a buffet car,
seating was in restaurant fashion with tables and chairs on
a carpeted floor to give passengers a relaxing space. The
menu featured standard dinner trays and curry with rice as
well as snacks and other foods that had a local flair. It was
well received by passengers and the buffet would often fill
up as soon as the doors opened at the first stop on the line.
Some West Hikari trains had a cinema car where the entire
car became a film theatre. Films that could usually only be
seen in a theatre were enjoyed at a low price and this service was much liked by passengers.
To compete with such services, airlines cut
their prices further, and the fight for market share heated up.
|Declining Dining Car Business and New Meal Services
Airlines are the main competitor for shinkansen
in long-distance transport. Many of Japan’s
airports are located well away from the city
centre, so the competitive edge of railways is
in reducing total travel time in comparison to air
travel that includes the extra time to get to and from the airport.
To meet this competitive need, the new
Series 300 shinkansen rolling stock was
introduced in 1992, with through service to the
JR West area starting in 1993. In the 30 years
after the start of the shinkansen, the main trains
have been the Hikari stopping only at major cities and theKodama stopping at every station. The new Series 300 was
dubbed Nozomi, and it increased speeds from 220 km/h
(230 km/h for the Grand Hikari) to 270 km/h. It inaugurated a
new ‘super high-speed age’ with travel times between Tokyo
and Hakata at 5 hours 3 minutes and between Shin-Osaka and Hakata at 2 hours 32 minutes.
The large speed increase led to a major review of
shinkansen meal services, and the dining car soon
disappeared from Series 300 and later shinkansen as result
of the much reduced travel times. New meal facilities dubbed
‘service corners’ were set up to replace the dining cars. They
were shop spaces adjacent to Green Cars (No. 8, 9, and 10)
and in car No. 7 and 11 selling boxed meals, drinks, snacks,
and the like. A major advantage was that passengers no
longer needed to pass through Green Cars, which normally
require an additional fee to access, and proved annoying
to Green Car passengers. Similar situations do not occur in
the first and business classes of airplanes. Sold items were
modelled after airline cabin service, with special products
available only to Green Car passengers. Dedicated carts
just for Green Cars were used to sell items such as bento and miso soup only to Green Car passengers.
Japan was in the middle of a ‘bubble’ economy when
meal services on the Series 300 were being considered
and the restaurant business was enjoying rapid expansion.
There was large passenger demand for meal services
when the series was first introduced, but growth in sales of
major companies was less than 1% after the collapse of the
bubble—Japan had entered the era of zero growth. Use of
meal services declined and the restaurant business was at
a turning point. Conversely, lower-price replacements such
as boxed meals from convenience stores and pizza delivery saw major growth at that time.
|Japan’s Bento Box Meal Culture
Ekiben box meals are more than just meals in Japan—they
are almost a form of culture. At major stations, multiple local ekiben sellers are often in friendly competition to provide colourful and gorgeous boxed meals.
Methods for selling ekiben include the usual methods
of shops and onboard carts. Another form that is for the most part now just a nostalgic memory is hawkers carrying
rectangular trays piled with bento, tea, and other items to sell
as trains arrive at a station. A feature is that passengers stay
on the train and open the window to call over a hawker, and
the sale is concluded through the window. It had its heyday in
the age when many lines were single track and a train would
often stand at the station for a long time waiting for another
train to pass. Today, it is for the most part a bygone tale.
Another example of ekiben being a form of culture in
Japan is the department-store ‘ekiben fair’ where ekiben from across Japan are sold. A major feature of ekiben fairs
is demonstration sales. Ekiben that are normally made in
food plants are purposefully created in front of customers.
As a result of such events, what were simply boxed meals
purchased when travelling have become famous items known nationwide.
Ekiben have many fans. Some people travel for the
specific purpose of eating a certain ekiben, and others
collect the wrapping paper of ekiben from various locations.
This wrapping paper is called ‘kake-gami’ and is decorated
with various pictures and illustrations for individual ekiben. It is even sold over the Internet as collectors’ items.
|End of Dining Car Business and More Speed Increases
Japan suffered major damage from the Great Hanshin
Earthquake on 17 January 1995. It was an inland shallow
earthquake centred on Hyogo Prefecture in what is called
the navel of Japan, but the shaking was felt as far east as
Fukushima and as far south as Kagoshima. The earthquake
cut railways between east and west. Shinkansen viaducts
collapsed, some conventional line stations were completely
destroyed, and reconstruction was expected to take quite
a long time. However, rapid recovery efforts resulted in the
reopening of conventional lines after 74 days on 1 April and of shinkansen lines after 81 days on 8 April.
The operation of dining cars that had served since the
start of the Series 0 shinkansen was to have been eliminated
at the March 1995 timetable revision, but the earthquake
resulted in the retirement of dining cars without fanfare, a stark contrast to their glorious beginnings.
The Nozomi shinkansen made its debut 2 years later in
1997. It was an epoch-making departure from shinkansen
trains until then. To achieve high-speed operations at
300 km/h, the first 15 m of the 27-m long lead car—more
than half the length—was sharply pointed. With an exterior
reminiscent of a jet fighter, these lead cars are still popular
today. The top speed on the San’yo section was raised from
270 km/h to what was then the world’s fastest at 300 km/h,
cutting travel times between Tokyo and Hakata to 4 hours
49 minutes and between Shin-Osaka and Hakata to 2 hours
17 minutes. Service corners were set up for meal services,
but sales by special carts were not introduced.
The Series 700 debuted 2 years later in 1999 with a
top speed of 285 km/h. While not reaching the 300 km/
h of the Series 500, it became the dominant train due to
improved comfort. Onboard meal services declined further
with the introduction of these high-speed trains. Other than
cart sales, dining cars, buffets, and service corners all
involved direct over-the-counter contact by the passenger
with a purser but with the decline in users, drinks vending
machines were set up instead of service corners.
Dining cars were finally overcome by the increase in train
speeds, and the last shinkansen dining car was discontinued in 2000 after 25 years of dining-car services.
|JR West Strategy to Compete with Airlines
The most profitable section for JR West is Kyoto–Osaka–Kobe and Kitakyushu–Fukuoka. Consequently, a new train
was brought into service in 2000 to replace the West Hikari. It was based on the Series 700 that had debuted the previous year, but it was built to specialize in operations between
Shin-Osaka and Hakata. Like the West Hikari, the strategy
was to gain an advantage over airlines in the competition
for market share. Normal shinkansen have 16 cars to carry
a larger number of passengers. However, because the
new train travelled only between Shin-Osaka and Hakata,
it only needed 8 cars to meet passenger demand. Market
research on who would use the train was reflected in the
design. First, like the West Hikari, four-seat rows were
introduced in the reserved cars to allow passengers to
spend their time in comfort—they were dubbed ‘saloon
seats’. ‘Office seats’ were also set up with large tables and
power sockets, targeting business passengers who would
make up the bulk of passengers, and a service that allowed
personal computers to be used was introduced. This service
could not be copied by airlines, which at that time were
restricting use of electronic devices onboard. The train was
dubbed Rail Star and was packed with popular services
provided at no extra cost, such as ‘silent cars’ without in-car
announcements, and four-person ‘compartments’ that could be used by groups.
Meal services on Rail Star used cart sales and vending
machines as with the Series 700. However, the pursers
conducting cart sales were called ‘star crew’; their uniform
design matched the new train and they sold specialties from across the San’yo region from new carts.
|Strategy Changes from Increasing Speed to Providing Service
By earning the solid support of passengers after the
introduction of Rail Star, the shinkansen recaptured share
from airlines between Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe and Fukuoka. This
was achieved by discovering what passengers wanted in the
train rather through the conventional model of development based on railway circumstances.
In 2000, JR West restructured its subsidiaries for providing in-station sales and food services. By merging
companies in the same industry, measures that made no
progress with multiple companies could be applied quickly
to produce the greatest effects. West Japan Railway
Food Service Net Company gained its current business
form as a result of that restructuring. The company runs
meal and hospitality services in the JR West area on both
conventional and shinkansen lines. It also manages food
and drink shops and kiosks in stations. With the opportunity
provided by restructuring, JR West could bring new
services, including meal services, to customers. Details of
services for passengers on shinkansen were reviewed in
2003. Until then, these had been mainly meal services, with
comfort services only being provision of wet hand towels to
Green Car passengers. Overall demand was determined
and underused service corners were eliminated with meal
services refocused on cart sales and vending machines to
provide appropriate and necessary services.
As a result, pursers who had previously handled
customers at service corners were free to actively walk
through the carriages, provide guidance to customers,
collect trash, etc., to create an even more comfortable
onboard space for passengers. By taking on tasks other
than sales, West Japan Railway Food Service Net Company
provided an opportunity to reaffirm the significance of purser
training in customer service, and the foundations were
formed for a variety of education programmes that are still being carried out today.
|Kyushu Shinkansen Starts Operation
The Series N700 combining the speed of the Series 500 with
the comfort of the Series 700 debuted in 2007. A key feature
of this train is power outlets on aisle seats in Coach class and
all seats in Green Cars. Outlets were installed to meet the
needs of passengers using laptops while travelling. Another feature is that this train is entirely non-smoking throughout. While this was not considered in the early design phase,
Japanese law requires that exposure to second-hand smoke
be prevented. In response, railways had separate smoking
and non-smoking areas in stations and had banned smoking
on short-distance trains. However, shinkansen and other
long-distance trains had only partially separated smoking and
non-smoking; passengers passing along aisles and vestibule
sections were still exposed to second-hand smoke. With a
WHO policy recommendation reflecting changing attitudes to
smoking, complete separation was determined as necessary
so all cars were changed to completely non-smoking, and fully isolated smoking spaces were set up in vestibules.
The Sakura Project was started by West Japan Railway Food
Service Net Company when the Series N700 debuted in
anticipation of through services between the San’yo and
Kyushu shinkansen from March 2011. The objective was to
convince passengers of the need for in-carriage services even more than ever.
The San’yo Shinkansen connects to the Tokaido
Shinkansen and the Kyushu Shinkansen and both operators
have onboard customer services including meal services;
JR-Central Passengers Co., Ltd. manages the Tokaido
Shinkansen while JR Kyushu Services Section manages the
Kyushu Shinkansen. At the time, West Japan Railway Food
Service Net Company had just started working on customer
services other than meal services, and it was judged to be
behind the other companies in terms of service level, so the
Sakura Project was started to bring the level up to that of the other companies.
Specific efforts consisted of breaking management
policy into three parts. Safety efforts were first. The idea
was to analyze accidents from various angles and prevent similar accidents based on the concept that there is no
peace of mind without safety. Efforts in service were second.
We looked at what we should do to allow passengers to
spend their time in comfort. Of course, we studied general
hospitality, but we also looked into predicting future
customer needs and having pursers propose actions.
Improving product appeal and selling capability came
third. Customer needs and tastes are fast changing, and
customers lose interest when the product line-up does not
change too. Consequently, we decided to actively introduce
new products and advertise products using in-cabin
announcements and POP to allow proposal of products from various approaches.
We saw working on those policies one-by-one with an
in-depth training system and making steady efforts as the
only way to achieve our objective of reaching the level of the other two companies.
During these preparations the 8-car Series N700 rolling
stock for through services onto the Kyushu Shinkansen
was at last completed and reflected passenger needs
like Rail Star had done. It was 8 cars to reflect passenger
demand but unlike the Rail Star it was coupled with Green
Cars. The designers were very passenger-conscious in
offering a variety of services such as powder rooms to meet
the expectations of new target women passengers.
West Japan Railway Food Service Net Company was
in charge of meal services and worked to develop a new
sales tool as a highlight for the new train, based on sales of
draft beer from an aisle cart. Draft beer had been sold way
back when dining cars were running, but had disappeared
along with dining cars because a restaurant licence
assuring provision of hot water to wash dishes and glasses
was required by Japanese law to sell draft beer. Simple
installation of hot water equipment on the train was all that
was needed for renewed sales of draft beer. Purser motivation grew rapidly with the completion of the
train and the decision was made to start service on 12 March
2011. The new Tohoku Shinkansen section to Shin-Aomori
would open 1 week before on 5 March, finally connecting
the northern extremity of Honshu at Aomori with the southern
extremity of Kyushu at Kagoshima by shinkansen.
Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a spectacular
celebration ended up with cancellation of all ceremonies
because the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the previous day.
All we could do was provide the best service to the many
passengers looking forward to riding the new line that day.
Many people were anticipating the ride and tickets for the first train had sold out in just 15 seconds!
Services for railways change gradually over time. Dining
cars flourished and meals were equated with service when
railways first started because travel times were long and there
was no other way of providing meals. Then meal services
changed to selling from buffets and carts as the railway
environment changed over time and train speeds increased.
Eventually, direct service to customers became mainstream
and the value of meal and sales services waned.
Today, cart services sell a line-up of about 70 items, but
that may not necessarily be sufficient as customer needs
diversify. We still need to analyze customer needs from
various standpoints, review the product line, and discover new needs.
At the same time, we need to work to increase the level
of safety and customer service. We are only happy when the
customer is happy, so we work to improve onboard services by striving to offer the best service.
|Photo: Interior of Twilight Express sleeper limited express dining car (JR West)
Photo: Twilight Express tableware (JR West)
Photo: West Hikari shinkansen buffet (JR West)