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Osaka – Umeda and Hirano – August 2015

The goal was simple... there's a freight train that runs from Umeda to Hirano and there's enough time to catch it at Shin-Osaka, bolt to Hirano and catch it again. Of course... this would be correct... if Umeda Freight Yard still existed. Little did I know that, whilst waiting at Shin Osaka station, the yard had been demolished some 3 years earlier!

The timetables I posted here were initially wrong. Wherever I had 'Umeda' should have actually been 'Osaka'. I thought 'Osaka' (from the freight train timetable) meant 'Umeda'... but it actually meant the yard right next to the Shinkansen depot out past Senrioka!

Shin-Osaka Station

I waited here for a while to see the freight head through to Umeda. Instead I got to see the standard array of express trains. Mixed in with these was a freight heading to Ajikawaguchi which caught me off-guard. You can find the timetables for Suita to Ajikawaguchi here.

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The Ocean Arrow/Kuroshio in pictured above actually left 5 minutes late. That last picture shows the driver hanging out the front of the train with the stationmaster discussing something that was preventing him from leaving. What I didn't capture was the guard bolting down the platform with a few sheets of paper that must have been the timetable/run-sheet that you see paper-clipped in the cabin. It seems the driver was issued with the wrong one, as he swapped the one in the train with the one the guard delivered. The train then departed.

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It was 30 minutes past the time that the train was meant to arrive and I decided to cut my losses. These trains are usually very close to clockwork and the Ajikawaguchi train had passed... so it was time to go.

Transit to Hirano

I took the Haruka Airport Express to Tennoji (thanks Rail Pass!) and then a local to Hirano. It was a quick trip. Of course, the goal was to pass the freight yard to see if there was any activity. Instead I was presented with the following...

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I think I let out a big 'Ohhhhh....' at that point and had fellow passengers look oddly at me. Everything clicked. I was glad I'd left, but unhappy that I'd waited so long at Shin-Osaka. This is Japan... if the train doesn't arrive 5 minutes after schedule then move on.

Hirano Station

This is a little station on the line to Nara. I've posted the freight timetable for this yard here. It is located two stations east of Tennoji and you must take a local service on the Yamatoji Line to get there. The stop between Hirano and Tennoji is Tobushijomae and is located on the south-west corner of the freight yard I sought out. Stay on the left side of the train between these two stations and you'll get a good view of what's about to depart.

The yard has three staging roads immediately next to the passenger lines, but at ground level... the passenger lines are elevated. In these roads you'll find made up trains that have just been delivered, or are about to depart. Trains that arrive are staged here whilst either the engine that brought them runs around or the yard worker takes them away. There is a shunt road that runs right up beside Hirano station for this purpose.

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I ventured out to Hirano on a Wednesday. As I passed the yard, I saw an EF66 about to carry out this very task. I got to the station in time to see it shunt right up next to the platform. It proceeded back into the yard and everything was quiet. There are occupation indicators line-side on the freight shunting roads that show you if anything is approaching. They'll flash if the track is occupied and stay lit if nothing is happening. Note that the flashing indicates that the road is in use. The train on the road may not come all the way up to the station. The points are situated a fair way back west and the shunting will only reach the station when long consists are being worked.

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I followed the timetable and realised that there was an inbound freight due. From the city-bound platform, you can see the triangle to the east where the freight trains come from. It didn't take long before a freight came in, 5 minutes early. This was dragged through by an EF210. After this, there was nothing scheduled for a few hours... of course, I stupidly only looked at inbound traffic.

DSC08242I was out of time and had to head back... completely failing to look at the outbound traffic timetable. As I left at 1pm on a local back to Tennoji, I passed an EF81 on its way to Suita. Totally pissed off, I was. EF81s are a favourite and I've taken a shot of one very similar to this one before... years before! In Umeda Yard! This poor old thing has been hanging around Osaka just waiting for me to return!

I returned to the apartment only to find that everyone else was still shopping... so... knowing that Hirano was 10 minutes from Tennoji, I ventured back to see the ~2pm services (one inbound and one outbound.)

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An EF210 came in, 10 minutes early... and then the EF66 I'd seen earlier proceeded to Suita with a short rake of flats.

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There was now nothing due until after 5pm, so I decided to call it a day and visit Den Den Town. I'd come back later to catch the EF81 in action.

Hirano Station, 2nd Attempt

My second attempt was carried out on a Friday. I based my plan around the 1pm depature of the EF81. Arriving at 12, I hoped to see at least one service... but absolutely nothing came through. The yard had zero workers and zero locomotives... just a few rakes of half-built consists. As I passed the yard on the way in I could see that nothing was happening, but I waited in vain anyway. Fail.

What was worse? The platform indicators were showing 'Pass' on the nearest platform to the yards. I'd not seen a pax go through here at all... so I sat, staring at the indicator... waiting for that "Train approaching" sign. Hours. Nothing. Oh well... they must program the slots in and not cancel them.

Hirano Station, 3rd Time Lucky

This time I attacked the station on a Monday. As I passed the yard on the local train, the EF81 was not there. It had been there waiting to depart the first time I'd visited and so I was worried. This time there were other locos in the yard, but none ready to head out.

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I got to the station, parched. There was nothing due for about halfa so, despite the platform board showing a 'Pass', I ventured to the city-bound platform for a beverage. There are no vending machines on the outbound platform. Lo'and'behold, my favourite EF81 bolts past just as I'm on the other side, inserting coins. I leave half the coins inserted, grab the camera and got a few photos... school kids nearby were wondering why a photo was more important than a drink...I smiled.

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Not to be fooled again.. I proceeded back to the outbound platform and caught the next freight coming in. Turns out there was also a young railfan there doing the exact same thing.

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Passing time was easy... there was a local every so often and expresses interspersed.


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And then it happened... the EF81 came through and the world was at peace.


Japanese Night Trains: Twilight Express

Night trains are becoming a thing of the past in Japan; but there should be a few that survive... hopefully the Twilight Express is one of them. This overnight sleeper train starts in Osaka and terminates in Sapporo, Hokkaido (and vice-versa.) The trip takes roughly 23 hours and traverses the west coast of the main island of Japan. There are two full consists of the Twilight Express to allow daily services from each end of the trip.


I'd seen the train in Japan when I was there in 2008 but hadn't even thought of travelling on it.

The Twilight Express pulls into ShinOsaka

Twilight Express heads to Osaka Station

A ticket in hand

My next trip to Japan was to be in 2009 and I was determined to get on the train. I hadn't had many spare nights in Japan and the train had been booked out between Osaka and Sapporo on the nights I did have spare. This didn't deter me though, as the reverse trip wasn't booked out. Of course, I then had to get to Hokkaido first and I therefore took the Nihonkai (another sleeper train) to Higashi-Muroran (Hokkaido) and intercepted the Twilight Express as it returned to Osaka. I wasn't able to get all the way to Sapporo in time to meet the Twilight Express there. Higashi-Muroran was pretty cold; although it was the start of the Japanese summer, Hokkaido was still in the low teens (degrees) and I wasn't prepared.

The Nihonkai had arrived on time, giving me a 2 hour stop-over in Higashi-Muroran. There wasn't much rail traffic and so I ran to the nearest katsu curry restaurant to have my favourite dish. On returning to the station I didn't have to wait long to see those familiar blue DD51 diesels arrive. Of course, the lighting was dismal and my digital camera had no chance of catching them moving... I also had no time of getting to the front of the train to take a still shot.

Twilight Express enters Higashi-Muroran

First impressions

Upon entering the car (I was in a B Class Sleeper) I was presented with beautiful wooden walls and very well kept rooms. As you can tell, I settled in pretty quickly... I'd also brought a few goodies on board. The conductor came in quite soon after to say hello and to apologise for not being able to speak English. Fortunately, my limited Japanese meant we could work out all the formalities: the coin-operated shower was in the Salon Du Nord car, dinner was in allocated time slots: 7pm,8pm,9pm (if I remember correctly) and finally I had to choose what 'type' of meal I wanted for dinner and breakfast? Japanese or Western... I wasn't on the train for Western food!
I then realised I wasn't alone in my cabin and started making new friends. Soon enough another conductor came and found me and offered to change me into another room (still a B Class 4-person) but with me being the only occupant. I couldn't turn down their hospitality and so obliged.

Salon Du Nord

Once settled in I decided to wander around to see what the train had to offer; The first target was the famed "Salon Du Nord". What I found was an amazing observation car beautifully fitted out with very large windows and two TVs. The channels were selectable, but of course, everyone had to agree to you changing the channel :) ... I do believe I watched the same movie 3 times whilst on my trip... but I didn't mind as I was mainly staring out the window.
The car also included the coin-shower and a vending machine. You could also go to the dining car next door and order 'from the bar'. I happened to have a very lovely couple of obaachans talk to me and ask me about my travels... it was quite difficult trying to converse in my broken Japanese and recall all the polite grammar forms; but it made the trip even more enjoyable. It made me laugh when they didn't believe that there were people from other countries taking the relaxed approach on a sleeper train because they liked trains... I was glad to change their perceptions.

Twilight Express Salon du Nord


I, unfortunately, did not take a full shot of the dining car, but I can assure you it is as tastefully fitted out as the rest of the train. The staff are fantastic and I even had my waiter ask where I was from and what I was up to. Then then offered drinks and the menu which had quite a lot of options. I, if I recall correctly, had a very lovely dish of Japanese Karaage (fried chicken.)
For breakfast I was greeted by the same staff and selected the Japanese breakfast option. There was no menu to choose from, as it was a set breakfast and I was asked to take a seat, admire the great view and await the meal. All of a sudden I had 5 dishes on my table and all I can say is yum!

Twilight Express breakfast

I then bought my souvenirs; available from the dining car menu and returned to my room.

Other classes

I had chosen the 'shared' cheaper B Class sleeper rooms, but you could also have a completely private A Class sleeper room. This included a 1-seater sofa/couch which folded out into a bed. The A Class carriage also included a small communal room at one end.

Twilight Express B-Class lounge/vestibule

Twilight Express operations

Now comes the fun part of the trip. Both trains, regardless of direction, have an engine swap half way on their journeys. Actually... I lie... over the trip the train encounters a total of 4 engine swaps, but you can't get out and watch the other 3 of them.
The engine swaps are:

  • Twilight Express EF81 from Osaka to Tsuruga
  • Twilight Express EF81 from Tsuruga to Aomori Depot
  • Unknown (I didn't get to see it) EF from Aomori Depot to Hakodate Depot
  • Double Blue DD51 from Hakodate Depot to Sapporo

The reason for the swaps are very simple. Hokkaido isn't 100% electrified, so the diesels are required. They use two for on-time running more than gradient climbing. The diesels can't enter the Seikan Tunnel (Honshu to Hokkaido) and so the unknown EF (a stainless steel version) is for that section. The EF81s are then used for the rest of the trip, mainly for brand-recognition :)

Southbound engine swap: Tsuruga

So, after a sound nights sleep, we arrived in Tsuruga with a warning that we'd have to stop over for 10minutes whilst they swapped the engines. We (as they pretty much expected we were all train fanatics) were allowed out to take photos but were to return to the train as soon as the buzzer was heard.
Who could resist? I got out of the train and got to the front to see our first engine (EF81 113) already detached and heading south to the depot. I then walked further down the platform to take a shot of our train next to the Thunderbird that had just arrived. I could not believe the dirtiness of our consist; I hadn't expected an EF81 to cause that much build-up on the passenger car, but it could have been caused from the entire trip.
EF81 104 then started approaching to couple up to the train. It had been sitting in the yard ready to come up as soon as 113 had cleared the points. As soon as it 'clunked' onto the train and the air flowed the buzzer on the platform went off and everyone cleared back on to the train.

Final stations to Osaka

As we got closer and closer, more and more passengers departed at certain platforms. The train was actually scheduled to only stop at stations that passengers had designated to get off at; which is now quite obvious, as it was never going to pick any up. I had booked all the way through to Osaka, but was considering getting off at Kyoto... Unfortunately we were held up due to 'unfortuante circumstances' and I ended up just relaxing in the Salon Du Nord and getting back to Osaka an hour late.

Since this trip I've now also travelled on the Hokutosei and the Kitaguni. I still recall the Twilight Express as being the most memorable and stylish... but will endeavour next to get onto the Cassiopeia.