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JR Tokai goes its own way against luxury sleeper trains

Chunichi Shimbun

More and more Japan Railway companies are trying to attract new customers by offering luxury sleeper trains and unique services on their trains such as baths in tubs made of cypress and gourmet meals by top-class chefs.

Contrary to this trend, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) “has no plans” of offering luxury sleeper trains, according to its president, Koei Tsuge. The company is choosing to move along a different track.

JR Tokai has the biggest net profit in the railway industry. Its lines take travelers through many sightseeing spots within its prescribed geographic area that are popular both in and outside Japan, such as Hida Takayama and Ise-Shima.

Other railway firms have come up with splashy new trains, including JR East’s luxury Train Suite Shiki-shima, which debuted on May 1, and JR West’s nostalgic Twilight Express Mizukaze, which launched June 17.

A four-day trip on the Shiki-shima costs from ¥740,000 to ¥950,000 per person, while a two-day or three-day trip aboard the Mizukaze can set you back anywhere between ¥270,000 to ¥1.2 million.

Despite the high price tag, the companies were flooded with ticket orders and the two services are now fully booked for the next year.

JR Kyushu was the first to launch such services with its Seven Stars in Kyushu cruise train. The program celebrates its four-year anniversary next month.

The luxury sleeper train has become so popular since its inaugural run that only one in every 17 interested travelers can get a reservation.

Seven Stars has also attracted many well-to-do foreign visitors, and has become the symbol of tourism revival in the region, which has been devastated by strong earthquakes in Kumamoto in 2016 and torrential rain in 2017.

Despite the trend, JR Tokai has decided not to jump on the luxury sleeper bandwagon.

“Our main business is the transportation artery linking Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. We are not thinking about (adding) luxury sleeper trains,” Tsuge said in a regular news conference held in June.

The decision is mainly due to the “fishbone” shape of the train network managed by JR Tokai. The Tokaido Shinkansen Line forms the backbone connecting to many regular train lines from different areas in the Chubu region.

As a result, it is difficult to create a circular sightseeing route using the train lines the way other carriers have done.

In addition, JR Tokai claims such services go against the basic principle of railway management.

“The train is a means of transportation. We’re not going to construct railways for people who just want to ride a train,” Yoshiyuki Kasai, honorary chairman of JR Tokai, said in March.

Following the privatization of the Japanese National Railways in 1987, Kasai pushed to make train operations efficient by implementing measures such as removing dining cars from shinkansen.

Compared with the lacquer-coated interiors of the coaches on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which was developed by JR East and other companies with foreign visitors in mind, the new Tokaido Shinkansen coaches that will debut in 2020, the same year as the Olympics, have a functional design that reflects the carrier’s focus on providing transport, not opulence.

“We think it’s unlikely that JR Tokai will roll out luxury sleeper trains in the future, but we hope the carrier offers trains that attract riders, in order to revitalize the tourism industry in the region,” said a staffer working in the tourism sector in Nagoya.

JR Tokai currently operates sightseeing trains using existing regular coaches and plans to add a train service for touring Aichi Prefecture in fall next year.

Many expect the trend of traveling and sightseeing by train to increase going forward.

“There is no need to focus on luxury trains that only the wealthy people can enjoy, but I think it’s a good idea for (JR Tokai) to consider having sleeper trains that travel to popular sightseeing spots,” said railway critic Ryozo Kawashima.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Sept. 3.