Steam locomotive engineers, a rare commodity in modern Japan, are currently gearing up for the summer by putting the finishing touches on their training.
Japan Railway group carriers, riding the newfound popularity of steam locomotives — thanks to the acclaimed film “Poppoya” and the NHK drama “Suzuran” — plan to make them a centerpiece for sightseeing in more than 10 areas across the country this summer.
However, because qualified engineers have become scarce since steam locomotives were phased out in 1975, the JR companies have begun training novices.
At an East Japan Railway Co. training school in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, Shinji Igusa, 42, and Hideo Fujimoto, 54, are among those gearing up for the trains’ comeback this summer.
The two, using a D51 engine built in 1940, handle all the work of operating the locomotive, from driving to continually stoking the coal-fed boiler.
From the engineer’s seat, Igusa calls out to Fujimoto, “Three more minutes to the tunnel.” Fujimoto, the fireman, speeds up shoveling coal into the firebox. The cab instantly turns into a steam bath.
The two railway men, who drive for JR East in the Takasaki district, started intensive training in June.
They passed strict conditions requiring them to have more than 10 years of experience driving trains and a boiler operator’s license. Igusa acquired a steam locomotive engineer’s license in October, while Fujimoto earned his in 1995, along with some hands-on experience.
The training — for a period of close to six months — consists of 40 hours of study, followed by technical training in which they run the locomotive from Takasaki to Minakami and back on the Joetsu Line, traveling 120 km every day.
For the steam locomotive, climbing the grade from Takasaki takes about two hours, twice that of a regular train. During this time, Fujimoto is too busy feeding the firebox to sit down and rest.
“It is not a pain for me because I know that we have fans out there who are enthusiastic about what we do,” he said.
He adds that he cannot help but feel overwhelmed. “It’s a great feeling as you look at the smoke, and (realize) you operate all this by adjusting the coal and steam.”
Various JR companies are currently conducting training sessions for steam locomotive engineers and machinists. JR East, for one, has already seen 22 graduate since its training commenced in 1993.
The two admitted the job is physically demanding, but said they were inspired to drive after seeing “the gallant appearance of the newly restored steam locomotive.”