If you’ve ever had the chance to ride the Shinkansen here in Japan, you’ll know there are usually three ticketing options. Most cars on the bullet trains are for reserved seats, including a car or two for the more expensive, luxurious “green cars.”
The trains also tend to have a few cars dedicated to non-reserved seats (自由席). These tickets are a bit cheaper, but buying them means leaving your comfort up to chance. During peak hours, there may be more passengers than free seats, and you may be forced to stand.
Now, Japan Rail is taking action to prevent the usual crush of standing passengers during the peak seasons – starting with the New Year.
The Shinkansen service to be targeted by this new policy is the Nozomi. This is the fastest bullet train service operating between Tokyo in the north, through to Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto. The Nozomi, which skips over numerous Shinkansen stations between these major cities, makes this journey of 515 kilometers (320 miles) in a mere 2 hours 21 minutes. As fast as it is, the Nozomi services is the shinkansen of choice for anyone hoping to get across Honshu in a hurry. From Osaka, it continues on in rapid fashion as part of the JR San’yo route, making its way to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu in a mere 2.5 hours.
But the convenience of the Nozomi service can cause issues with overbooking. (Perhaps this is why the Nozomi is one of the rare routes not covered by the popular JR pass.) Crowding is a continual issue during peak times. Now, JR is taking an unprecedented step to standardize shinkansen usage during Japan’s biggest holidays. This will be the first time the Nozomi goes reserved-only in two decades.
Nozomi Gets a Little More Selective
The new policy will affect the “big three” holiday seasons in Japan, all of which see major travel occur across the archipelago. The seasons in question are the New Year’s holiday, the multi-day vacation Golden Week, and the traditional Obon summer holiday.
During these times, bullet trains can end up at around 200% capacity. This means passengers can be stuck standing in aisles or sitting on their luggage in the passageways between seating areas. Not an ideal way to spend two or more hours on a train.
According to Livedoor News, “during the three major peak periods, reserved seats get filled up quickly. Not only can it be impossible to get a seat or board a train if one has not got on at the initial point of departure, but many also line up from the early morning to be able to get a non-reserved seat. Congestion also occurs on the train platforms.”
Making every seat reserved will prevent long periods of waiting at the platforms. This is believed to be connected to easier boarding and disembarkation, and the smooth, timely operation of the Shinkansen.
But it will put at least a little more monetary burden on the passengers. For the Nozomi, reserved seats are usually around 720 to 1200 yen more expensive than non-reserved. This can represent around an extra 7% cost – not much when looking at the overall cost of a ticket, but it can start to add up.
Changes Afoot on the Bullet Train
These changes represent one of a few shifts occurring over at Japan Rail. Recently, JR announced the end of their venerable Shinkansen snack cart service. These carts have been pushed down the corridors of the bullet trains since the 1960s, but are slated to be phased out entirely.
Also subject to change is the beloved JR Pass, a former steal of a deal for inbound tourists. The pass has allowed international visitors to ride all the JR trains in the country at their leisure, and all for around $220 for seven days or $350 for fourteen. Now, prices are rising by around 69%, doing away with much of the benefit previously offered by the pass. According to one survey, 70% of tourists now say they’ll skip purchasing the JR pass once the price change is implemented. The only real improvement the more expensive passes will offer is access to the Nozomi service.
Additionally, the global semiconductor shortage has led to issues with making new IC cards; this has caused providers across Japan to stop the manufacture of most physical cards used for boarding trains and buses throughout Japan. These services are shifting to using phone-based IC readers, and even the direct usage of credit cards.
The business of long-distance transit is adapting to numerous changes within Japan. The population is dwindling, and cities are becoming denser. The way people vacation is changing. On top of that, international tourism is seeing a major rebound post the strictures of the initial years of the pandemic. We’ll likely continue to see more policy changes into the future.