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April 15 was the 50th anniversary of the closure of Yubetsu Railway, which carried coal in Kushiro, eastern Hokkaido, amid Japan’s energy shift to oil.

An old steam locomotive that used to carry coal — dubbed “black diamonds” — and local passengers between Kushiro and Yubetsu Coal Mine in the city’s Akan district will be brought to the Kanto region and restored as a tourist attraction.

Former locomotive drivers of the railway say they can’t wait to see it looking as grandiose as it used to.

Tatsuo Shibata, 88, who was at the controls for the railway’s last run on April 15, 1970, still remembers his train was packed throughout the day with local residents wishing to catch a glimpse of it. The front section of his locomotive was adorned with a special plate carrying a farewell message, “Sayonara Yubetsu Railway.”

Shibata recalled that he was particularly focused on safe driving and not making the slightest mistake, as causing an accident on the final run would have been a disgrace.

After joining the company in 1946, Shibata also worked as an engine assistant, throwing coal into the steam train oven by using a shovel or his own hands. Even now, his hands remain as strong as before. “When I went to the hospital to measure the strength of my grip, I was amazed at the high score I got,” he said, laughing.

Another former driver Eisaku Kenmochi, 91, recalled how delighted he was when the first diesel trains were introduced to Yubetsu Railway, which had many old trains that often broke down.

To maintain the safety of operations, Kenmochi said he would prick his knees with a sewing needle to stay awake and pay attention to the drunk miners walking on the rails. “I did everything I could to avoid an accident,” he said.

Eisaku Kenmochi (left) and Tatsuo Shibata, former locomotive drivers of Yubetsu Railway, speak about the heyday of the rail line. | HOKKAIDO SHIMBUN
Eisaku Kenmochi (left) and Tatsuo Shibata, former locomotive drivers of Yubetsu Railway, speak about the heyday of the rail line. | HOKKAIDO SHIMBUN

As of today, remnants of Yubetsu Railways’ lines can be still found in many parts of Kushiro. For instance, the old coal rail line has been refurbished as a road exclusively for bicycles. Likewise, the entrance of the subterranean tunnel of Kushiro Station still connects to the platform used by Yubetsu Railway.

Tokyo-based Tobu Railway has recently bought a Type C11 steam locomotive used by the Yubetsu Railway from 1957 to 1970 for about ¥4 million to restore it as a tourist attraction.

The locomotive had been stored in Ebetsu near Sapporo, and its restoration is now underway at a rail yard in Saitama Prefecture. It will be completed around the year-end. The refreshed locomotive will run on the Tobu Kinugawa Line that connects Tokyo and the hot spring resort of Kinugawa in Tochigi Prefecture.

Kenmochi is eager to hear the whistles of the train once again. “Once restored, I want to see it speeding along the rails and even be the one to drive it,” he said.

Yubetsu Railway was established in 1919 by a coal mine developer in the Yubetsu area. In 1923, the railway started operation on a 44.1-kilometer section between Kushiro and Yubetsu Coal Mountain Station. The railway transported coal and passengers, and at its peak it carried more than 2 million passengers a year and 1 million tons of coal.

But Yubetsu Coal Mine closed on Feb. 27, 1970, as oil replaced coal as the nation’s main source of energy. The railway continued operation until April 15 of the same year to support the lives of miners, families and people who worked for affiliated companies.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on April 15.

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