History of Steam Locomotives of Japan (日本の蒸気機関車史)

We would like to describe the history of steam locomotives in Japan.

Foundation of Railroads

When Japanese railroad service started in 1872, all the locomotives, for example Japanese National Railways (JNR) 150 steam locomotives, were introduced from foreign countries. This was a matter of course because the newly-established Meiji government had no technology to produce them.

In time the governmental railroad company (Japanese National Railways or JNR) built British style railroads, importing many vehicles from the United Kingdom, the governmental Horonai Railway in Hokkaido introduced American style facilities and trains such as JNR 7100 steam locomotives (nicknamed Benkei, Shizuka, etc.), while the Kyushu Railway Company adopted the German style.

Groping for Japanese-style Railroads

To establish home-grown railroad technology was urgent business for the Meiji government. In order to encourage not only government, but also private enterprise to promote the railroad industry, the government worked actively to establish a train manufacturing company in Osaka and Nippon Sharyo in Nagoya. The government gave orders for copied products of imported locomotives to each private company so that they could develop their technology, sent engineering officials abroad for study, and strengthened its academic and technological foundation.

They made it possible to produce copied goods during the middle of the Meiji period, but it was not until the end of the Meiji when they gained confidence in basic technology. Moreover, it wasn't until all imports were stopped, because of World War I, that they could successfully make special steel parts such as axles.

At last, with the coming of the Taisho period, trunk-line steam locomotives of a Japanese-original design began to appear. Successful examples in this early time were JNR 9600 freight steam locomotives (nicknamed, "Kyuroku") and JNR 8620 steam locomotives for passenger cars (nicknamed, "Hachiroku"). Many of these two types of locomotives were produced in domestic private factories and we can say that a domestic production system for steam locomotives was almost established at this point. Particularly the 9600-type was used for the longest time of all other subsequent types of steam locomotives and existed long enough to see the end of Japan-made steam locomotives.

Progress in Domestic Production

In the early Taisho period, the successful production of JNR 9600 and JNR 8620 steam locomotives, the first mass-produced domestic steam locomotives, led to domestic production of all steam locomotives for domestic use.

Along with the increased traffic volume due to the Post-World War I economic boom, the Ministry of Railways promoted the further upgrading and standardization of steam locomotives. As a result, epoch-making and large-scale locomotives such as JNR C51 and JNR D50 steam locomotives were mass-produced, and steam locomotives for many purposes appeared in succession by 1948 after World War II.

These steam locomotives, with some exceptions, generally had high reliability and durability for practical use so that they worked extensively all through the prewar and postwar glory days for railroads. Their long-term contributions until the abolition in 1976 cannot be overestimated.

Refer to the domestically-produced JNR steam locomotives.

Gaps in Technology and Stagnation of Development

Nonetheless, the development of Japan's steam locomotive technology was consistently far behind European and American levels at that time, even considering the handicaps of narrow-gage railroads (a big obstacle to the upgrading of trains due not only to the narrow gage, but also weak tracks, which severely limited the axle load). The introduction of technological innovation was almost stopped in the field of steam locomotives after the Taisho period, when it was assumed that the goal of 'domestic production' was achieved.

This was not a surprising matter, considering that Japan had a weak basic industrial power at that time. However, in addition, the mainstream engineering staff including Kiich ASAKURA and Hideo SHIMA, who played leading roles in designing motor vehicles from the 1920s to the1930s, were extremely afraid of taking risks on a fundamental technical level and stuck fast to German technology, in particular to a rather old-fashioned Prussian approach of driving slow, large-diameter drive wheels.

They tended to dislike straightly introducing remarkable technological innovation of steam locomotives from various foreign countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, and even if they adopted one, they often added their own unwise modifications, which ruined original technical merits. The engineers who wanted to attempt straight technology introduction tended to be treated coldly at the Ministry of Railways, so some of them left the Ministry early to take positions in private industry, or a position with the South Manchuria Railway, a Japanese capital enterprise, which was open-minded to the introduction of advanced technology.

It resulted in a marked technological stagnation for steam locomotives of the Ministry of Railways/JNR. Essential technological development stagnated at the C51/D50 level, and after that a certain degree of improvement of boiler pressure and partial improvement of the electric welding adoption, etc. were made, but most one-off introductions of essentially new technology failed because of a lack of consideration on the part of the development staff. The practical maximum running speed of the Japanese trunk-line steam locomotive remained less than 100 km/h from the Taisho period to the postwar period, which can be said to represent its checkmate.

In 1954 a JNR C62 steam locomotive ran on Kisogawa Bridge on the Tokaido trunk line at a speed of 129 km/h, which was 'a speed record of steam locomotives on the narrow gauge railroad,' however, this record was made in the process of a series of speed tests to see if an old-type truss bridge called a pin jointed truss could stand high-speed driving in the coming age of electric trains under an atypical situation that the tests were performed on the C62 steam locomotive alone from various limitations.

JNR at that time was also performing speed tests at a speed of more than 120 km/h on electric trains and electric locomotives, but these tests were performed under conditions almost equal to those of commercial operation, and moreover, Kansai private railroad companies including the Hanwa Electric Railway and New Keihan Railway, which adopted the newest Western electric railroad technology, were known to have constantly been performing high speed driving at 120 km/h during the prewar period on their commercial trains (without filing, knowing that the Ministry of Railways would not permit speeds over maximum driving speed of JNR), which made it clear that the Japanese railroad technology, especially that of steam locomotive designing was lagging behind.
(However, JNR, too, rudely ran their electric trains, pulled by electric locomotives, at a speed of 120km/h [the speed the Ministry of Railways permitted was 95km/h, at the field level].)

The lack of theoretical analyses necessary for achieving high speed railroad trains and discussions about serious vibration problems including criticism from experts that "people would not be able to endure a high speed train for very long" was reaching a frightening level, and this problem had almost been made light of until a staff member, who had been studying aircraft flutter countermeasures at the former "Kaigun Koku Gijyutusho (later called Kaigun Kugisho) at the Japanese Naval Aeronautical Technology Institution, joined the General Railway Technology Institution after the World War.

After all, Japan's steam locomotive technology did not reach an international level until the terminal phase (1950s) of development. The Ministry of Railways on the mainland, as well as the Korean Railway Bureau, which adopted a standard gauge and ran with Japanese technology, and railroad companies in the China continent including South Manchuria Railway did not surpass Europe and America in the locomotive technology.

A strict fact should be acknowledged that only checking/repairing technique was at a high level, but many of the technological bugs - the basic structure of the locomotive itself is the best example - were made up for by 'craftsman-like' skills of diligent staff members, like checking/repairing workers.

Shift to Other Types of Motivity

In the latter half of the 1940s when the C61/C62 types appeared, Japanese railroad companies were suffering from extreme shortage of coal, so that they were conducting the electrification of lines out of the need of electrification including the main lines. However, the electrification rate of railroads was only about 10%, so steam locomotives were still playing a major role in transportation. This can be understood from the fact that JNR planned to produce C63 steam locomotives after the beginning of the 1950s. In the meantime five JNR E10 steam locomotives were produced in 1949, after which steam locomotives were not produced any more.

What changed this situation was the 'Power Modernization Project' reported in 1959 by the JNR Power Modernization Research Committee. The report said that 'from fiscal 1960 to fiscal 1975, 5000 km of the trunk line should be electrified, other lines dieselized and steam operation should be fully abolished.
The total amount of investment was to be 486.5 billion yen including 95.5 billion yen for electrical facilities, 76.5 billion yen for vehicle-related facilities and others (33.8 billion yen for electrification and 42.7 billion yen for dieselization), and 314.5 billion yen for vehicles (142 billion yen for electrification and 42.7 billion yen for dieselization.'
This background revealed the appearance of trains with new performance after 1957 represented by JNR 181 and 101 trains and the rise of diesel railcars which made it possible to pull a long and heavyweight train created from the realization of drive-line transmissions of railcars/diesel locomotives after JNR Kiha 10 railcars appeared in 1953.

Thus began the smoke-free project; old steam locomotives produced during the Meiji/Taisho periods and large-size steam locomotives for the trunk line were first replaced followed by middle-size for local lines and small-size for branch lines.
In particular large-size steam locomotives for passenger carriages with some exceptions such as the C62 steam locomotives transferred to Hokkaido after weight reduction of the axles was made, disappeared from the first line unexpectedly early because they could not be diverted to those for the sub-trunk line due to the large vehicle body or axle load
Zippy small-size steam locomotives also quickly lost their existing value with the appearance of lightweight diesel locomotives represented by JNR DD16 diesel locomotives.

While class locomotives created under modern thoughts were disappearing comparatively early, yard-track shunting steam locomotives remained for use years afterwards. Because JNR DD13 diesel locomotives were not powerful enough for heavy work like hump work in a freight yard, JNR DD20 diesel locomotives were produced experimentally, and ended in failure. As a result, the JNR 8620 and 9600 steam locomotives produced during the Taisho period remained in use years afterwards.
However, with the beginning of the 1970s these steamers were continuously displaced by shunting-only diesel locomotives such as JNR DE10 steamer locomotives

End of Practical Locomotives

In this way steam locomotives were being reduced in number; they disappeared one after another from Kyushu in March, 1975 (in Shikoku they had already disappeared at this point), most types ceased to exist with only 3 types remaining such as the C57, D51, and 9600 models. Steam locomotives of these three types continued local operations, coal trains or shunting work in Hokkaido as their last jobs.

On December 14, 1975, train 225 with a plate on the front saying 'Good-bye SL (steam locomotive),' pulled by the C57 135, ran between Oshamanbe Station and Iwamizawa Station on the Muroran trunk line, and thus regular passenger carriages pulled by steam locomotives disappeared. This C57 135 traveled as an out-of-service train, was carried to and preserved in the Transportation Museum in Tokyo (now preserved in the Railway Museum opened in October, 2007 in place of the Transportation Museum). On December 24, ten days after the last run of train 225 pulled by the C57 135, a coal train pulled by the D51 241 ran on the Yubari Line (now the Sekishosen Line), which was the last run of steam locomotives on the main line, and with the last operation of a shunting train pulled by the 79602(9600 type of Oiwake Engine Depot on March 2, 1976 of the next year, steam locomotives disappeared from JNR.

Private railroad companies also stopped the use of steam locomotives after the last operation at Tetsugen Cokes in Muroran City in 1982.

The Latest Domestically Produced Steam Locomotives

Steam locomotives for pulling passenger cars came to an end, but Japan-made steam locomotives have been appearing even after that.

Kyosan Kogyo Co. Ltd. produced three IB tender locomotives (one more added later) for the attraction, 'Western River Railroad' in Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983. The fuel is heavy oil only. It is an attraction for a theme park, but a unique one as an attraction in Japan in 'real steam locomotives' are catered to.

Attempts at Preservation

Thus steam locomotives disappeared, however, movements to preserve steam locomotives as a modern industrial heritage have come to be seen. In addition, with more people chasing disappearing steam locomotives, a steam locomotive boom took place across the country in the first half of the 1970s; a lot of fans began to come to good places for taking pictures of steam locomotives typified by the place between Mena Station and Kami-mena Station (now abolished) in the Hakodate trunk line and Nunohara Signal Station (now Nunohara Station) in the Kibi Line, and even some people who were not interested in railroads started chasing steam locomotives. Thanks to such movements, preservation activity has begun. The first was the one Oigawa Railway Company performed in 1970, between Sento Station and Kawane-Ryogoku Station, using a dynamically preserved steam locomotive JNR 2100 transferred from Seino Railway Company. Afterwards, this company, having performed the operations of dynamically preserved JNR C10 and JNR C12 steam locomotives, at last restarted running steam locomotives on the trunk line on July 9, 1976 when steam locomotives disappeared from JNR. This was the 'SL Express (Kawane-ji-go)' pulled by a JNR C-11 steam locomotive.

This revival operation of steam locomotives gained much popularity, so the company has been running not only the JNR C10 steam locomotive also transferred, but also the C12 164 owned by Japan National Trust, which is also performing cultural heritage conservation activities, as 'SL Express (Trust Train).'

On the other hand, JNR, taking the "100th Railroad Anniversary" in 1972 as a turning point, also began to preserve steam locomotives in a permanently dynamic state and opened the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum in the vicinity of Kyoto Station during October of the same year. When it was opened, there were seventeen type-16 locomotives and fifteen of them had a vehicle inspection certificate and thirteen were in a firing state. Operating these preserved vehicles in the city outskirts including the Tokaido Line was planned, and from the opening day of the museum to 1974, the 'SL (steam locomotive) Sirasagi-go' pulled by the C62 or C61 type ran between Kyoto Station and Himeji Station during the tourist season. However, because of the later aggravation of labor-management issues their conservation operations were discontinued, and commercial steam locomotives disappeared.

JNR, facing seriously growing budget deficits and a situation where all commercial steam locomotives were abolished, planned to restart the operation of preserved steam locomotives. Same as before, they planned to perform an operation on the city outskirts on the Tokaido Line and so on, but when they operated a steam locomotive 'Keihan 100-nen-go' between Kyoto Station and Osaka Station on September 4, 1976, fans' bad behavior caused an elementary school student to die on contact with the train (Refer to the Keihan 100-nen-go Accident for details), and for this reason they gave up the project, changing it into a permanent operation on the local lines. The Yumo Line (now abolished) in Hokkaido was one of the candidates for this project, but the Yamaguchi Line was singled out because it was connected with the New Tokaido Line and had a lot of sightseeing spots. On August 10, 1979, the operation of the 'SL Yamaguchi' pulled by the JNR C57 steam locomotive began.

Afterwards, the SL revival operation project did not go well partly because of the influence of JNR reconstruction, and this "SL Yamaguchi-go" became the only SL during the JNR era, but the project gained rapid speed due to JNR breakup and privatization. In addition, private railroad companies continuously performed SL revival operations. Now, more than 30 years after the disappearance of steam locomotives on the JNR Line, SL revival operations have been performed in many places.

Railroad companies which are currently operating dynamically preserved steam locomotives (including operations in yards) and their classes/types are as follows:

JR Group

Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido)
NR C11 steam locomotives (C11 171, 207)
Now used in the 'SL Niseko-go' and 'SL Hakodate Onuma-go,' etc.

JR Higashi-nihon (JR-East)
JNR C57 steam locomotive (C57 180)
Now used in the 'SL Banetsu-monogatari,' etc.

NR D51 steam locomotive (D51 498)
Now used in the 'SL Okutone-go,' etc.

West Japan Railway Company (JR-WEST,)
JNR 8620 steam locomotive (8630)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

JNR B20 steam locomotive (B20 10)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

JNR C56 steam locomotive (C56 160)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. Now used in the 'SL North-Biwako-go,' etc.

C57 type (C57 1)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. Now used in the 'Yamaguchi (train)', etc.

JNR C61 steam locomotive (C61 2)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

JNR C62 steam locomotive (C62 2)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

D51- type (D51 200)
Dynamically preserved at the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.

Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu)
JNR 8620 steam locomotive (58654)
Its operation was halted in 2005 because of the twisted framework, but it was revived as the 'SL Hitoyoshi' during April, 2009 after a new frame was made.

*Formerly in Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido) the C62-type (C62 3) had been operated as the 'C62 Niseko-go,' but was abolished in 1995 no longer in operation.

Private Railroad Companies

Oigawa Railway Company
JNR C10 steam locomotive (C10 8)
Now used in the 'SL Express (Oigawa Railway).'

C11-type (C11 190,227)
Now used in the 'SL Express (Kawane-ji-go, etc.).'

JNR C10 steam locomotive (C12 164, owned by Japan National Trust)
Having fully been used in the 'SL Express (Trust Train, etc.),' but now out of service.

JNR C56 steam locomotive (C56 44)
Now used in the 'SL Express (Kawane-ji-go, etc.).'
This steam locomotive is one of the 'going-to-war locomotives' during the Pacific War and the only one that made a 'miraculous return' from Thailand. It had been out of service since December, 2003 due to the superannuated boiler, but revived in October, 2007 in the appearance as it was during the period it was in Thailand.

Chichibu Railway Company
JNR C58 steam locomotive (C58 363)
Now used in the 'Paleo Express.'

Mooka Railway Company
C11-type (C11 325)
Now used in the 'SL Mooka.'
Often rented to other companies (chiefly JR East).

C12-type (C12 66)
Now used in the 'SL Mooka.'

Outside Japan

State Railway of Thailand (SRT)
SRT 700-type (No. 713/ No.715)
Old C56 15, 17. The 713-type has a number plate on the front that was copied from the one during the C56 period.

In addition, the Russian Republic Railway had, in the Sakhalin autonomous region, reproduced in a dynamic state the D51 exported to the Soviet Union as part of Japanese war reparations, and had its revival operation (because of the reproduction from an almost neglected condition and a lack of the original drawing, the front of the boiler was revised in a complete Russian style, but there were some vestiges left in the carburetor and some other parts). Also Japanese-type steam locomotives, that never existed in Japan, including Taiwan (Taiwan Railway) CT12 type, SRT 900-type, and 800-type, are preserved in a dynamic state.


As stated above, at first glance, Japanese steam locomotives preserved in a dynamic state seem to be many in number and are still brilliant.

However, focusing on their types, we know they center on the C11-type or smaller-type locomotives. This is simply because small-size steam locomotives take less cost and effort for preservation and maintenance.

Among other countries, in advanced countries or countries with much understanding of industrial heritages, there is government support to preserve railroads or steam locomotives as cultural assets and maintain them, and there are active volunteer activities on the private level. A lot of people get on board such trains even if they have to pay high fares including so-called donations. Another example is that even fans who are chasing such trains in their cars for photographs understand the idea and many of them chip in to preserve them.

But in Japan people show little understanding of the government supporting them, and tend to dislike paying even for event trains, more than the fixed fare of currently running trains.

Therefore, the present situation is that except for the C58 363 owned by a local government (Saitama Prefecture) and the C12 164 owned by Japan National Trust, a nonprofit organization, steam locomotives preserved in a dynamic state are maintained by the funds from each of the companies that own them. As for the first two mentioned above, the fact is that they have been receiving great support for maintenance, one from JR East and the other from Oigawa Railway Company (consequently its mother company, Nagoya Railway Company).

Japan, among advanced countries, has been pointed out having shown very little understanding about industrial heritage since the Industrial Revolution, and in fact this tendency is a marked one. One example is that the C62 3, the only C62 trunk line locomotive with a title of 'the biggest and fastest on the narrow gauge' was forced to stop its operation because of a shortage of funds.

More than half a century has passed since steam locomotives, even the newest ones were manufactured, so in future the cost for preservation/maintenance will increase at an accelerated pace. Private companies originally profit-oriented organizations, have been unable to make profit from single business and have been 'digging up' personnel necessary to continue operations from limited available staff including retired workers (however, Oigawa Railway Company or JR East is training their personnel), so it is feared that steam locomotives will disappear in near future from Japanese rails.