The West Banetsu Line (磐越西線 Ban'etsu-saisen) is a rail line in Japan operated by East Japan Railway Company (JR East). It runs from Kōriyama Station in Kōriyama in Fukushima Prefecture to Niitsu Station in Niigata Prefecture. The name "Banetsu" refers to the Meiji-era province of Iwaki (磐城) and the ancient province of Echigo (越後), which the East and West Lines together connect. "Sai" means "west" in Japanese.
SL Banetsu Monogatari-go is a special express train that runs on a 126-kilometer track from Niigata to Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima. On an approximately 3.5-hour ride, it stops at 10 stations on the way to Aizuwakamatsu and at nine stations on the way back. Passengers can enjoy a one-way trip to either destination or a round trip on weekends and holidays mainly from April to November. This steam locomotive is a C57-180 type train that was in service from 1946 to 1969. By restoring and repairing the train that had been stored at an elementary school in Niitsu City, its routine run on the Banetsu line began in April 1999. The interior of the train and the uniform of the crew are designed in a style unique to the Taisho era which is also the period when the Banetsu line was opened. The track located along the Agano River runs in a beautiful natural setting. The train stops for approximately 10 to 15 minutes between two of the stations, allowing passengers some time to take pictures. While fully enjoying seasonal scenery with features such as fresh green leaves and crimson foliage, you can experience a pleasant ride on an old-fashioned steam locomotive.
Just for anyone wanting to catch this train, here are some pointers to grabbing tickets. The train runs usually twice each weekend, sometimes only in one direction, see the website and follow these notes:
- The current timetable is here
- [Green] 新潟～会津若松（往復運転）
Niigata to Aizuwakamatsu RETURN trip.
- [Pink] 新潟→会津若松（片道運転）
Niigata to Aizuwakamatsu one-way ONLY trip.
- [Yellow] 会津若松→新潟（片道運転）
Aizuwakamatsu to Niigata one-way ONLY trip.
- [Green] 新潟～会津若松（往復運転）
As for the 'busy' periods:
- Standard weekends are 'boring' for locals, so there's usually no direct hurry to get tickets.
- The XMAS Special is ridiculous and getting tickets is impossible.
My experiences with SL Banetsu
- Saturday 27th June 2009
- Had Japan-wide railpass, went to Tokyo Midori no Madoguchi office the day before and reserved my seat. (very easy with basic Japanese)
- Arrived at 9am to Niigata station and heard an announcement: People wanting to travel Aizuwakamatsu should use Platform 1 (SL is Platform 9 or so.)
- Asked station attendant, showed ticket, and he told me "today SL nai."... no reason was given.
- XMAS Special Saturday 19th December 2009
- Had Japanese friend in Australia call JR Tokyo office on 16th November 2009 to reserve tickets, no luck, they said you can do it online.
- Created account with her assistance on JR East ekinet: Could see SL Banetsu on other days but you can only book one month ahead.
- Came to 19th November 2009 and there was still no visibility of XMAS SL for 19th December 2009.
- Had friend call Japan again, they said it could not be booked online and over the phone bookings required a "view plaza" credit card.
- Requested another friend in Japan to get tickets in person at Tokyo station. He couldn't make it for a week and was to get them on the 28th of November.
- Australian friend called again on 26th November and ALL 3 XMAS special trains are fully booked.
- If you are going for a special service (there's a few in November and the XMAS specials in December) then go to Tokyo Midori no Madoguchi the morning of the day one month before the travel date. You can only book them one month before, and I'm not sure, but I'd wouldn't be surprised if there is a queue.
- Even if you have a ticket in hand, you should probably call Niigata station, or someone else in charge, to be certain that the SL is running on your day of travel.
My plan of attack now
- Saturday 19th December 2009
- Catch the Shinkansen to Koriyama and then the Banetsu line via Aizuwakamatsu to Shiokawa.
- Take a photo of that damn SL even if it kills me.