Sunday, 1 May 2016

JAPAN - Kobe Subway & Guided Systems

Subway train at Tanigami terminus, 7 km beyond the line's actual terminus

While in Osaka for a total of five nights, I went on a daytrip to nearby Kobe (28 April 2016). Osaka and Kobe are linked by three parallel railways, so I had to make my choice. As I had already been on some Hankyu trains, I decided to take a Hanshin train, also because it would take me directly to the Rokko Liner, one of the two automatic guided transit systems I wanted to check out. Still in the morning rush hour (yes, trains also get pretty packed in the outbound direction) I jumped on a Limited Express at Umeda, realising later inside the car that actually all trains stop at Uozaki, where transfer to the Rokko Liner is provided via an encased elevated walkway.

Rokko Liner at Sumiyoshi terminus

Although the weather was looking rather horrible and not inviting to leave a station to take pictures from outside, I still decided to get a combined 1-day ticket for Rokko and Port Liner for 1200 Yen. Having looked at the options on the internet the day before, this was not too difficult at the machine, because this is the first system I find in Japan where ticket offices are not permanently staffed. Again, if someone wanted to just ride the train it would probably be enough to get the cheapest ticket, ride to the end of the line and then back to the other end, Sumiyoshi, which is an interchange with the JR line. Trains were running every few minutes and were quite busy. Although the last stop is called Marine Park, there is not much there, but the view from the elevated route is quite nice, especially the harbour crossing with its red suspension bridge where the guideways for either direction diverge to run alongside car lanes on the outer side of the bridge structure. And while the other stations have a simple, though rather wide island platform, the staton south of this bridge, Island Kitaguchi, has a sort of V-shaped platform. The stations are numbered R01-R06, and can also be identified by a symbol, like in Fukuoka. The symbol's pale colour is also visible in the line diagram above the platform screen doors, but this colour is not seen elsewhere in the station.

Portliner approaching Naka-koen

Technologically, the Rokko Liner as well as the Port Liner are similar to Yurikamome in Tokyo, i.e. a driverless train or rubber tyres. Like in Hiroshima, the ride is not bad, but could be smoother. Inside, the cars feel too small, as they only have a very narrow gangway between carriages, not really an open-space design.

While the Rokko Liner operates in the eastern suburbs of Kobe, the longer Port Liner actually starts at Kobe's main transport hub Sannomiya, right next to the JR station and near the Hankyu station, the underground Hanshin station and the two subway stations. The Port Liner uses rather new rolling stock in 6-car formation, whereas the Rokko Liner only has four cars in each train. Initially both systems had a similar route length, with the Port Liner running in an anti-clockwise loop around the new development area on Port Island. Later a branch was added, which has become the main line. Maybe 2 out of 3 trains go to the airport, with the other one doing the loop and returning to Sannomiya. The Port Liner is pretty slow on its first section as it winds its way through some elevated motorway junctions before it catches full speed across the harbour. As a result of its expansion, most stations have side platforms (as initially on the loop they only had a platform on one side). Naka Koen has three platforms, i.e. two side platforms on the same level on the main route, plus another half-island platform on top of the main inbound track for trains returning from the loop. The inbound guideways merge only north of Naka Koen station on the approach to the harbour crossing. At either end of the main line, trains can switch to either side before entering the station, there are no sidings beyond the termini. At Kobe Airport they seem to normally use the southern guideway. On the loop, Naka Futo actually features an island platform, too, I suppose the eastern track is only used by trains entering from the depot. As with the Rokko Liner, despite the new trains, the ride is a bit humpy, the concrete guideway showing its age and having been repaired in some sections, so again, a bit like a bus on an irregular roadway. Stations here are numbered P01 etc, and the numbers are even announced in English along with the station name.

Hanshin train terminating at Kobe's Sannomiya underground station

Before exploring the Subway proper, a short note on Kobe's Passante, a railway tunnel running rather parallel to the main Subway line, the Kobe Kosoku Line, which was built by a third-sector company, but is shared by three different private railways, the Sanyo, Hanshin and Hankyu Railways. Together they provide quite a metro-style service. Adding Kasuganomichi on the Hanshin route, there are nine underground stations in sequence. The Hankyu route joins the Hanshin route just before Kosoku Kobe station.

Sanyo train at Kokosu Kobe on Kobe's "Passante"

Older Subway train at Shin-Nagata

So while the suburban lines join to form a metro in the city centre, Kobe's main Subway line has a rather suburban character, especially along its western leg, the Seishin part of the Seishin-Yamate Line. Distances between stations here are rather long and many sections are on the surface, though interrupted by some tunnels due to the hilly terrain in the Kobe hinterland. The line colour green is also visible in the livery of all the trains of which there are at least three different generations, all looking a bit dated now. I was quite impressed by the design of the first station I saw, namely Itayado, with its wall panels imitating wood:

Itayado station on Seishin-Yamate Line

 Most other stations also have the flair of the 1970s or 1980s, some could do with a little refurbishment. The last station on the western leg, Seishin Chuo, somehow reminded me of Stockholm, a partly underground layout with two island platforms and a medium-sized shopping centre on top with a big concrete square in the middle. On one side there is a large bus terminal. Towards the other end, Sannomiya seems to have been refurbished not too long ago, with whitish enamelled panels providing a well-illuminated space. Here the respective platforms lie on top of each other (to Shin-Kobe on the upper level). Although not really included in my Subway-only day pass I had acquired for 820 Yen (by the way, this is not available from the ticket machine, just from the person at the counter!), I rode the train all the way out from Shin-Kobe to Tanigami, a 7 km tunnel through a mountain range. As long as you don't exit the station no one cares. You can actually change to a Shintetsu train at the same platform without having to pass through a ticket gate.

 Subway logo - white U on blue blackground looks familiar....

While the Seishin-Yamate Line is a standard metro (using a kind of Madrid-style tram-like overhead catenary), the newer Kaigan Line is another of those linear motor metros I have now already seen in Fukuoka and Osaka. Again, the trains rattle too much for a modern metro system, a bit like a cheap low-floor tram with loose wheels. This one is also manually driven and has no platform screen doors, but unlike the Seishin-Yamate Line, which still has a conductor in the rear cabin managing the doors, the Kaigan Line features one-man operation. The easternmost of just four cars is reserved for women at all times! The Seishin-Yamate Line has such a car somewhere in the middle. I haven't seen it in rush hour, but during the day it was very little used. Like the Nanakuma Line in Fukuoka, it is badly integrated with other transport at Sannomiya, again you have to walk through a shopping mall to transfer. So, again, I wonder why they chose this technology instead of making it compatible with other lines.

Shin-Nagata, the nicest station on the Kaigan Line

In Kobe, unfortunately it is impossible to get proper maps, not even for the two Subway lines alone. A railway network map showing all different services is urgently needed here.

Previous stop: HIROSHIMANext stop: OSAKA


Kobe at UrbanRail.Net (feat. map)


  1. Just wondering if you've travelled on the 'other' Passante that takes Shintetsu trains down to Shinkaichi? Shintetsu does have a bit of an interurban character by the way
    There's also a curious Wadamisaki Line shuttle - would you consider it urban rail?

    1. But the Shintetsu line would not be a "Passante", as the idea of a Passante is that trains can run through the city and surface on the other side, but I understand that the Shintetsu ends in a stub and you can transfer to the Kokosu.

    2. Guess you're right - the Namboku Line works the same way as the Hankyu leg (in not being a true 'Passante') and is integrated with the Tozai Line (since both are part of the Kosoku), hence my confusion...

    3. Did you visit nagata terminus ? are there stabling track beyond or is there a depot somewhere at this end of the line ?

    4. On the chuo line i mean .

  2. Linear motor metros have been built for one reason only: smaller tunnels, and thus lower construction costs. Passenger comfort was never a factor, neither when riding nor when transfering. The result is bad for passengers, and so they do not use it: on the Kaigan Line, passengers were expected to be 80,000 a day when the line opened, and 130,000 a day in 2005. However, in 2005, the real figure was only 39,000, and today it is around 45,000.


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