From steam to speed: The trains of Tokyo's Railway Museum

Bullet trains and steam locomotives of Japan's past at Tokyo's Railway Museum.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Tokyo's Railway Museum

Located just northwest of central Tokyo, JR East's Railway Museum showcases powerful locomotives and luxurious rolling stock from throughout Japan's rail history. 

For more about this museum and our tour, take a ride through Tokyo's past at the Railway Museum.

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I started at the back of the museum after lunch at one of the restaurants. On the ground floor are two shinkansen, aka bullet trains. There's a 400 series on the left and an E5 series on the right.  

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'90s kid

The 400 series was in service between 1992 and 2010. All were scrapped except this one. They had a relatively low top speed of 150 miles per hour, or 240 kilometers per hour.

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Lunch cars

In something of a rarity, there are two 183/189 series cars outside that you can sit in and eat a packed lunch.

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Double decker

The E1 series was the first double-decker shinkansen, a feature that's still unusual in Japan.

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Main hall

The museum's cavernous main hall is impressive in its own right. 

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Top down

A view you don't normally see: The roof of a shinkansen with its rear pantograph (power contact) raised.

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This ED75 locomotive first entered service in 1963. Unlike many of its counterparts, it only has four drive wheels instead of six, but it boasts similar levels of performance. This is called a Bo-Bo layout. A handful are still in service today.

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As benefits a museum dedicated to large machines, it's great that there's a walkway around the entire main hall so you can get a good overview of the vehicles.

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Early electric

The decision to electrify the inter-city rail lines came before there were any electric locomotives to run on them, so Japanese Government Railways bought electric multiple-unit (EMU) trains from English Electric. One example is the ED 17, which you can see in the lower middle of this photo.

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Shinkansen spotter

On the top floor there's an area with tables called the Shinkansen Lounge where you can watch different shinkansen zoom past.

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Nose to nose

This is an E2 series (left) mated to an E3 series

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First steel

Well into the 1920s, Japan's rail passenger cars were made mostly of wood. This Oha 31 was the first series made of largely of steel. 

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The panels were riveted, not welded. The roof is still wood.

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As ridership increased, Japan National Railways lengthened the cars, starting with the Kumoha 40 here.

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Easy on, easy off

The doors were widened as well, allowing passengers to move between carriages more quickly.

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Even today many of Japan's rural areas don't have electrified train lines, as such they usually have diesel multiple-unit trains. This is one of the first, a KiHa 41300.

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Red Ed

The ED75, runs on AC power and is denoted by its red color scheme. DC locomotives in JR service are painted blue and cream. Those trains that could run on both were painted rose pink.    

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Cargo speed

The EF66 was developed to improve the amount and speed of cargo shipments by train, matching the speed of passenger trains at the time. Dozens are still in use today.

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Stepping towards shinkansen

In the mid-'60s there were hundreds of these 481, and later 483 and 485 variants, crisscrossing Japan at high speed. 

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Dual mode

These were trains that could run on both the newer AC-powered tracks, and the older DC. A few are still in service.

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Though this looks similar to the original bullet train design, it's a 200 series that dates from the early '80s.

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Higher and higher speed

Some 200 series trains were in service until 2013, with multiple updates and upgrades giving them a top speed of 175 mph (275 kph).

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Down under

The 200 series was one of the few that you could go underneath and check out one of the bogies.

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This 200 series was modified to work in the snowier parts of Japan. The added weight of the plow was offset by using more aluminum elsewhere in the cab.

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In addition to the plow and some other modifications, the 200 series had a form of traction control that helped minimize wheel slip during acceleration and deceleration.

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Long life

The 455 series, on the left, was in service for 50 years.

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Rapid service

The 455 was from the same era as the 481 series, and like those trains worked on AC and DC lines.

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The cars were designed to operate in either direction, and as such used mostly bench seating.

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In the back of the museum there's the nose and cab of a 0 series, the original shinkansen.

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Forward view

I waited in line with all the other kids to catch a glimpse of the driver's cabin of the 0 series.

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Go and stop

Of the two handles placed on the driver's right, the rightmost is the drive, the one to its left is the brake.

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Actual 0

In a side room they had a complete and original 0 series. 

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Japan on the move

Over 3,200 of these shinkansen were built, and the last were retired from service in 2008.

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You can go fully under the 0 series, but there's a trench alongside it that gives you a view of the significant amount of electronics needed to keep these trains moving at up to 137 mph (220 kph).

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Before the advent of high-speed trains, Japan had multiple overnight train lines. These 20 series Nahanefu cars might have been pulled by the EF66 locomotive you saw earlier. 

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Luxurious for the era, these had air conditioning which was nearly unheard-of in Japanese homes of the time.

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First electric

This is a 151 series, JNR's first type of high-speed train, capable of up to 70 mph (110 kph) all the way back in 1958.

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Probably the most identifiable feature of the 151 series is the cab perched high up and forward, offering a great view of the track ahead.

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Most 151s were reworked into the 181 series we saw earlier.   

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I really like this weirdo. An early streamlined locomotive, the EF55's main issue was that it was only able to be driven in one direction.

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The Nade 6110 dates from 1911, and was the first rolling stock on the Yamanote Line, one of the major lines of the Tokyo metro system.

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Sign of things to come

Its size and design influenced many of its successors on a line that now serves over 4 million people a day. The current rolling stock is the E235 series which looks every so slightly different.

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Big steam

The big C57 class steam locomotive dominates the center of the museum. These were all retired by 1975, and were the last steam locomotives regularly pulling passenger trains in Japan.

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Big wheels keep on turnin'

The massive wheels measure 5 feet 7 inches (1,750 mm) in diameter. 

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Turntables and a microphone

Twice a day the C57 gets spun on a turntable in the center of the museum. It's crazy watching something so huge revolve so gracefully. I made a short video of one of the demonstrations.

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Mini shinkansen

The museum is also host to one of the largest and most elaborate train dioramas in Japan. It's Total track length is an incredible 3937 feet (1,200 meters). There are regional trains, freight trains, commuter trains, and of course, multiple bullet trains. 

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A train home

I couldn't fit in this tiny model train to head back to Tokyo, so instead I took a much larger one. 

For more about this museum and our tour, take a ride through Tokyo's past at the Railway Museum.

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