The International Steam Pages

Preserved Steam in Japan, 2015
Steam on the Ban'etsu West railway

This one of a number of reports about Japan. See also:

James Waite writes of his first main line steam special in Japan.

The JNR was broken up in 1987 as a prelude to privatization and four of the new companies operate steam specials. The most active of them by far are JR East who run the main line services to the north and east of Tokyo and JR West who also run the country's largest railway museum at the old Umekoji roundhouse at Kyoto and who use it as an operating base for steam trains in the west of Honshu. I was fortunate to be able to see 2-8-2 no D51 498 (Takatori 26/1940) and its train being tested before a weekend of special trains promoted by JR East over the Ban'etsu West main line between Koriyama (郡山) and Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松) to mark the cherry blossom season, something very important to the Japanese. Most Japanese steam specials use modern, brightly painted coaches and carry somewhat unsightly headboards. However this train consisted of period vehicles painted in the brown colour used during the steam era and, as it wasn’t a public run, there was no headboard.

Koriyama is a large city in Fukushima Prefecture about 240km north of Tokyo and not far from the nuclear plant damaged in the 2011 tsunami. The railway, built privately in 1898 and 1899, was one of many private lines lines taken over by the state in 1906. It’s highly scenic and passes close to Mount Bandai, at 1,816 metres the highest mountain in this part of the country and a not wholly dormant volcano which last erupted in 1888. The line was electrified in 1967.

The D51’s were introduced in 1936 and 1,115 were built for the state railway until 1945, by which time a further 32 had been built for Taiwan. 30 more were built in 1948 and 1949 for the 3ft 6in (1067mm) gauge lines in the southern part of Sakhalin, the Soviet island north of Hokkaido and a final 5 for Taiwan in 1951. They were the most numerous locos during the last years of Japanese steam. More than 170 have been preserved in Japan and a few more in Sakhalin and Taiwan. So far as I'm aware only no D51 498, along with no DT668 in Taiwan, are currently in working order.

For many years I’ve owned a photographers’ guide to the country’s last steam lines written about 50 years ago. It says that the Ban’etsu West line, “blessed with beautiful scenery, was very popular among railway enthusiasts because various types of steam locomotives were operated along it. At present, however, it is only D51 Mikado engines that operate along the line and consequently the number of visitors has decreased.” I wonder what its authors would have made of the crowds who turned out to see no D51 498!

51 498 approaching Bandai Atami on the outward run

51 498 climbing through the pass west of Bandai Atami


51 498 climbing through the girge west of Bandai Atami

D51 498 at Aizu Wakamatu, the end of the line.


51 498 approaching Hirota on the return run


51 498 climbing towards the summit near Bandaimachi


Rob Dickinson