Kyushu ‘cruise train’ full steam ahead despite high fares

Kyodo

Wealthy travelers from Japan and abroad are continuing to flock to Kyushu Railway Co.’s luxury “cruise train,” prompting other railways to offer similar tours to overcome a stagnant commuter market.

Kyushu Railway, better known as JR Kyushu, launched Seven Stars in Kyushu, which does a loop around the island, in October 2013.

Starting and finishing at Hakata Station in Fukuoka Prefecture, the sightseeing train comprises seven coaches with 14 suites along with a lounge car and dining car. Each journey is limited to just 30 passengers.

The suites are furnished with high-quality wood and fabrics and decorations include ceramic pieces by the late Arita porcelain master Sakaida Kakiemon XIV.

Eyebrows were raised when the company announced at the launch that fares would reach a maximum of ¥1.1 million ($9,200) per couple for a four-day trip, but applications have continued to flood JR Kyushu, even though it later raised fares to a maximum ¥1.5 million.

Earlier this month, the railway said it will raise fares during its peak season in April and May to a maximum of ¥1.7 million per couple.

For trips between October and next February, applications exceed capacity by a ratio of 33 to 1, and rides on the train are allocated by lot. Reflecting the cruise train’s popularity, repeat passengers accounted for 27 percent of all applications, according to JR Kyushu.

Inspired by the success of Seven Stars in Kyushu, other JR group companies are planning similar services.

West Japan Railway Co. will offer journeys aboard the 10-coach luxury Twilight Express Mizukaze between the Keihanshin (Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe) and Chugoku regions, starting in spring 2017. East Japan Railway Co. will begin operating the 10-car Train Suite Shiki-Shima around the same time.

JR group companies are introducing new luxury cruise train services as a “high road” to prosperity amid Japan’s dwindling population, economic analyst and television celebrity Takuro Morinaga said, adding that they needed to offer train services that raised spending per passenger given stagnant revenues from commuter train services.

Noting that the average age of passengers on the Seven Stars train was 61.3, Morinaga said luxury cruise trains could tap into a steady market of retirees with time and money to spare.

JR Kyushu is also benefitting from a steep increase in the number of tourists visiting Japan from abroad. The company expects foreign tourists to account for some 25 percent of all passengers on the cruise train in the current business year, a figure it hopes to raise to 50 percent.

One barrier to further expansion is what railway critic Ryozo Kawashima calls JR group companies’ “turf consciousness,” meaning they are unwilling to embark on journeys that exceed their service areas.

One exception is a plan by JR East to extend the Train Suite’s itinerary to Hokkaido, which is served by Hokkaido Railway Co.

But it may be some time until long-distance luxury train rides link Kyushu and Hokkaido across the breadth of Japan, Kawashima said.