Why People “Want to Ride Freight Trains”… A Surprising Reason Why a Medical Journalist Wrote a Freight Train Accompaniment | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Why People “Want to Ride Freight Trains”… A Surprising Reason Why a Medical Journalist Wrote a Freight Train Accompaniment

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After 40 years… covering the original landscape of my childhood

Railroad fans have been subdivided into such categories as “train riders,” “train takers,” and so on. However, a book has appeared that sets itself apart from the various books for such railroad fans.

Let’s go on a freight train! (Bungeishunju) was written by medical journalist Shoni Nagata. Why this book?

I am not what you would call an “iron geek. But I have loved looking at maps since I was a child, and when I look at railroad route maps, I see some routes I have ridden before and some I have never ridden before, and I want to ride something I have never ridden before.

So I asked the adults around me, “How can I get on one of these? They told me, ‘You can’t ride it because it’s a freight line,’ so I became interested in freight trains.

When I told him about my passion for freight trains since childhood, he took me seriously and agreed to do an interview,” said Shoni Osada (PHOTO: Mayumi Abe).

Mr. Nagata, who was living in Yokohama at the time, recalls that he used to ride his bicycle after school to see the freight lines and freight trains in the port department.

She recalls, “It was lonely, the atmosphere. Unlike passenger lines, the tracks were covered with weeds, and you wondered if a train would really come running in such a desolate place, but then it would suddenly appear from far away, and you would be impressed.

It was not until he was over 50 years old that he was “reunited” with the original scenery of freight trains in earnest.

An editor asked me, “Since you are always working hard in the medical field, why don’t you write about your favorite theme once in a while?” I started a series of articles in the monthly “Bungei Shunju” magazine, “Zubari Tokyo 50 Years Later” (August ’16 to January ’19), in which various authors report on Tokyo’s old scenery. (August 2004-January 2007 issue, later published as a new book titled “Heisei no Tokyo: 12 Faces of Tokyo”). The first thing that came to mind was freight stations.

When I mentioned that I wanted to cover the older Sumidagawa Station, the editor, who did not know the situation, said, “In any case, why don’t you take us on a freight train? I thought there was no way he would take me on a freight train.

I thought there was no way they would take me on a freight train, but I asked JR Freight for an interview and, on the spur of the moment, asked them to take me on a ride. When I told them about my passion for freight trains since childhood, they took me seriously and agreed.

Unexpected response, “Importance of Freight Railroads” revealed through the interview

When the article was published on Bunshun Online, there was an unexpected response. The article was so well received that it was repeated two or three times, and then published as a book, he says.

Incidentally, Mr. Nagata escorted freight trains four times: once from Tsuchiura Station to Sumida River Station, a little over an hour; second from Shin-Tsurumi Signal Station to Tokyo Freight Terminal Station, about an hour; third from Hiroshima Freight Terminal Station to Saijo Station and back, about an hour and a half round trip; and fourth from Aomori Signal Station to Hakodate Freight Station and back, about three hours. The last was a three-hour ride with “Monthly Bungei Shunju” from Aomori Signal Terminal to Hakodate Freight Station via the Seikan Tunnel. Mr. Nagata looks back on his second escort with deep emotion.

There is an undersea tunnel dedicated to freight trains that runs under Haneda Airport. There is an undersea tunnel dedicated to cargo trains that runs under Haneda Airport, and dozens of cargo trains run through there every day. I rode a freight train through there on my second excursion, and it was exciting to think that there was an ocean above this tunnel, an airport above that tunnel, and airplanes above that tunnel.

The EH500 electric locomotive that I rode on my first excursion. Nicknamed “Kintaro.

He adds that he also learned the importance of freight railroads through his coverage.

One is the seriousness of the 2024 problem, which is caused by the shortage of truck drivers. Another is that freight trains are attracting attention because of their overwhelmingly low carbon dioxide emissions.

For example, a freight train from Tokyo to Sapporo runs seven sections, with drivers taking turns like a relay race. So, this is going to be very important in the future.

In fact, when the Japanese National Railways (JNR) was spun off into the Japan Railway (JR), trucks were thriving in freight transportation, and JR Freight was treated as baggage, with many saying that it would eventually go out of business.

In the past, there were many tracks dedicated to freight trains in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but JR Freight transferred most of its lines to passenger companies in order to streamline its operations to the utmost limit. So now, freight trains are running on a fee paid to the passenger companies for the use of the tracks.

Because the rails are owned by the passenger companies, passenger trains are full during the day in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and freight trains run in bundles at night. That’s why people in Tokyo don’t see freight trains now. However, there is a need for midnight at night, and a flow has also been established where parcel deliveries picked up in Tokyo during the day are carried in the middle of the night and delivered to their destinations in the morning the next day–“

In the event of a disaster, the freight train driver arranges for the trucks….

By the way, do the train drivers need any special qualifications?

The freight trains are pulled by locomotives, so they have to be certified to drive locomotives. With the disappearance of blue trains, the only trains pulled by locomotives are basically freight trains, except for some special trains. Since locomotives are the largest vehicles running on the ground, many people are attracted to them. However, there are many people, such as those who cannot become drivers due to aptitude tests for eyesight and other reasons, but still want to work in freight transportation and work at freight stations.”

It is natural that freight trains cannot run in times of disaster.

I heard that the driver of a freight train that was suspended for a long period of time due to a heavy rainstorm in western Japan once worked as a truck guide at a freight station. “I heard that the driver of a freight train that was suspended for a long period of time due to the heavy rains in western Japan once guided a truck at a freight station,” said one of the train drivers.

Also, during the same heavy rainstorm in western Japan, the Sanyo Main Line was shut down for a long period of time, and freight trains were diverted to run on the Sanin Main Line, where they normally do not run.

However, in order to run trains in places where they do not normally run, the drivers must also undergo a certain amount of training. They need to be able to look at the scenery around them and know where to apply the brakes,” he says.

For freight train drivers, the view is actually very important.

For example, if they see a building, they know that there is a danger ahead. When I ask them where they like the scenery, they answer, ‘The place with the sea view in Onomichi,’ but they also say, ‘I can’t look at the scenery. The more beautiful the scenery, the more dangerous it is, and you have to watch the traffic signals carefully.

There is also the fear of driving in the middle of the night.

I’ve heard that animals, especially deer, sometimes come to lick the tracks in the middle of the night to replenish their iron reserves and come into contact with the train. Then there is only one driver on the freight train, so he has to inspect the long train by himself with a flashlight. If you come in contact with some life form deep in the mountains in the middle of the night, it may not necessarily be an animal. …… That’s scary.”

‘Of course, I want railroad enthusiasts to read this book, but I also want people who love to travel to read it.’

The Profound World of “Freight Trains

The current trend is that cargo is basically transported long distances by rail, air, and ship, and short distances by truck. Some of these trains were born out of the supply-demand balance between outbound and inbound routes.

There was a train that was fully loaded going from Kanazawa to Osaka, but empty on the return trip. When we were thinking of doing something about this, two beer companies approached us and said, ‘We want to transport our products from Nagoya to Kanazawa. We told them that there was not much room on the train from Nagoya to Kanazawa, but there was room on the freight train from Osaka to Kanazawa, and they decided to move their production base from Nagoya to Osaka and use that train. It is called a ‘beer train,’ and it carries beer from two different breweries on one freight train.”

On the Tsugaru Kaikyo Line, he says, some locomotives are specially designed to run on the Shinkansen tracks.

The Shinkansen trains are so fast that they can’t see the traffic lights, so the signals go out to the driver’s cab. When a freight train runs on the Shinkansen tracks, it stops just before entering the line, and the driver switches various switches to Shinkansen specifications, then switches back to the original settings when it gets off the train on a conventional line.

A freight train entering the Seikan Tunnel (opening on the Honshu side).
Front view inside the Seikan Tunnel. The train glides along without any shaking.

Incidentally, the train with the longest running distance is the one from Sapporo Freight Terminal Station to Fukuoka Freight Terminal Station, which takes about 43 hours. Because many of these long-distance trains carry “short-ride” cargo, containers must be lifted and unloaded many times at intermediate stations, where forklifts waiting at each station play an active role.

The forklift trucks that stand by at each station play a vital role in this process. The forklift operator’s technique is amazing, as he safely and reliably unloads the cargo at a set time according to the schedule, returns it to its designated location, and then loads the container in another location. The next container is placed in the same spot where the first container was removed. Sometimes, the next container is inserted into the space between the containers on either side, a space that is only the size of one fist.

The sight of several forklifts moving around functionally is so impressive that it is like watching a mass game. I want people to know that there are all kinds of professionals working on freight trains and at freight stations.”

Freight trains have many hidden fans, but similar books include photo collections and “Freight Timetables,” originally created for shippers and popular among enthusiasts, to a limited extent. When asked what kind of person he would like this book to be for, Mr. Nagata said, “This is probably the first book of its kind in the world on freight trains.

This book is probably the world’s first travelogue about freight trains. I have loved railroad travelogues by writers such as Uchida Hyakken and Miyawaki Shunzo since I was a child, and I wanted to write about them from the perspective of a freight train.

So, of course, I want railroad enthusiasts to read it, but I also want people who love to travel to read it. I think people will enjoy it as a travelogue that has never been written before.

Let’s go on a freight train! (Bungeishunju)
I also accompanied the locomotive that pushed the train up the steep grade called “Senohachi” on the Sanyo Main Line from the tail end of the train.
There are various types of jobs on freight trains, each of which strives for “safety” and “on-time operation.
Large containers are loaded and unloaded by a special vehicle called a “top-lifter,” which suspends them from above.
  • Interview and text by Wakako Tago PHOTO (interview) Mayumi Abe

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