Rail Report: From Tottori to Ōsaka, Japan on JR-West Limited Express Trains (09 July 2015)

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It takes an enormous fleet of trains to serve JR-West‘s sprawling territory, and one stands a good chance of encountering several different examples on even a single day’s worth of travel. Let’s have a look at some of them as we cut across western Japan.

I’ll write about today’s sightseeing in a separate post. For the moment, we’ll swing the spotlight towards the trains that took me across this part of the country.

My first trip of the morning was between Tottori and Kinosaki Onsen

…via the Hamakaze 2 limited express service (dep. 0600 / arr. 0712), operated using KiHa 189 series DMUs. Standard-issue livery on this occasion, although the scheme was enlivened by a small plaque or sticker promoting Takeda Castle fixed to the front of the train.

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The 3-car set used on this morning’s run had a single-class arrangement – i.e., no Green (first class) Car – though the seating and legroom were perfectly adequate for the 72-minute ride to my next stop. (Personally, I wouldn’t ride it all the way to the service terminus at Ōsaka; I’d rather switch to a more comfortable train along the way.) Standard configuration for a limited express Ordinary Car, with seats arranged four abreast.

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As for the ride quality … well, it was a bit shaky here and a bit noisy there, but that’s par for the course where a diesel-run train is concerned. In any event, this was a fairly new model (introduced 2010) and I did observe a definite improvement over the even shakier conditions on board an older KiHa 187 series DMU that I rode a day earlier. There were also some great views of the Sea of Japan coast along the way, with the thickly forested hillsides occasionally yielding to little bays and inlets with storm-driven waves crashing against rocks.

I spent a couple of hours exploring Kinosaki Onsen, then returned to the railway station to catch a train to Shin-Ōsaka.

This was the Kōnotori 12 limited express service (dep. 0933 / arr. 1229), employing a 381 series EMU. Incidentally, the 381 didn’t last much longer on this particular service: the model was retired from the Kōnotori run in October 2015 (just a few months after my trip) and replaced with newer 289 series EMUs.

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Introduced in 1973, this was a much older type of train than the 189 DMU, although I found it better suited for the long trip to Ōsaka thanks to the inclusion of a Green Car. Unlike the 4-abreast seating in the Ordinary Cars further back, passengers in Car 1 were arranged three to a row – double seats on one side of the aisle, single seats on the other – with rows spaced farther apart to provide greater legroom.

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I noticed that the identification number on the side of the car had been altered, from クロ381-106 to クロ381-1106; I’m no expert (and I’m happy to be corrected on this) but this probably indicates that a major refurbishment was done at some point in this set’s long service life. Such a refurbishment might also explain something odd I saw inside the cabin…

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…where a number of seats were supplied with foot cushions, substituting for the standard footrests (mounted, as one would expect, on the base of the seats in front) which were much too far away to be of use to anyone but a chap on stilts. Perhaps the remodelling involved an alteration to the interior layout, which left some seats stranded too far back from the rows in front of them; haven’t a clue really but that’s one possibility.

A couple of hours later, I headed north for a bit of sightseeing in Kyōto. Of course I must have taken a train on that leg, but the absence of a reserved seat ticket in my files suggests that, for pure convenience, I simply hopped onto the non-reserved car of a limited express or shinkansen service, or even on one of the frequent (though slower) shin-kaisoku services plying that route. In any case, I probably had enough time to spare for a seat reservation on the return leg (stopping at Tennōji), because I have both a ticket and images of my ride…

…the Haruka 37 limited express service (dep. 1745 / arr. 1833), using a 281 series EMU. The Haruka is perhaps better known as an airport train – linking Kansai International Airport with Ōsaka and Kyōto and other points beyond – but it’s also very useful as a commuter service for that area, although it operates less frequently (at half-hourly intervals) than local or rapid services.

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Launched in 1994, the 281 is a reasonably comfortable train to ride in, especially in its Green Car with the spacious three-abreast arrangement and folding footrests…

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…but I do have a gripe over the tables, which (in both the Green and Ordinary Cars) are so laughably small that one wonders why they even bothered to install them. Sure, the travel times aren’t particularly long – less then 80 minutes from Kyōto to the airport, for example – but they’re long enough for early morning or late afternoon travellers to squeeze in a light meal along the way, and there’s really not much room to properly spread out a bentō or even a few onigiri if one so desires. I certainly hope that this is something JR-West will address at some point, at least when the trains are old enough to require a major refurbishment or outright replacement, though of course I wouldn’t identify it as a major priority.

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