My family is currently looking for a house to buy in Tokyo. Originally I was just thinking about buying near a park and a supermarket that had a decent stock of cheese and wine. For the simple reason that most of my friends live centrally, I was predominantly looking in the South-Eastern corner of Tokyo. However, after talking with a few friends, I’ve recently wondered if I should be looking in the opposite corner of the big smoke. How many of you knew that in less than a year (mid 2010), Keisei Railway is going to start a new express line that will connect Tokyo and Narita in 36 minutes? Yes, 36 minutes. How cool would it be to move seamlessly to and from Narita every time you visit home? I don’t know about you but the whole prospect of travelling to and from Narita depresses me so much that it generally takes a day into my holiday to get over the fiscal and mental pain associated! Clearly I’d had my head in the sand because the lovely little Ueto Aya (上戸彩) was part of the team to announce the new service back in April of last year! Since I decided to look into the details, I figured that I may as well share them with you, too. After all, this could end Tokyo’s thirty year old jinx as being the most impossible city to access from its international airport!
Seems too good to be true.
So what’s catch? Well the first, and rather predictable, piece of fine print is how they measure the travel time. 36 minutes is the time needed to travel from Nippori （日暮里駅）to Narita’s Terminal 2 Station (空港第2ビル駅). Presumably if you get on at Ueno （上野駅）and have to use Terminal 1 （成田空港）then it will take closer to 40 minutes. That itself is not a deal breaker. Perhaps the bigger problem for most of us is the location of Keisei’s existing stations in Nippori and Ueno. Unless you live on the Yamanote Line (山手線) or in one of the many cardboard boxes in Ueno Park, neither are really that benri (便利, convenient.) It doesn’t help that JR’s Nippori Station is one of the only JR stations in the capital to have neither an escalator nor an elevator. Even if the new Keisei Nippori Station will be completely barrier free like they are promising, it is of little consolation to those of us who have to lug our family’s heavy suitcases up the stairs on the JR side in order to get there.
Here is the detailed PR video (in Japanese) that will give you a run-down of more details:
Narita Sky Access – 36 minutes/2400 yen/62.0km Between Nippori and Narita:
The new train will be known officially as: “Narita Sky Access” (成田スカイアクセス), and the fare from Nippori to Narita Airport will be consistent with the current Keisei offering of 2400 yen. This makes it not only faster than JRs N’EX (Narita Express) offering, but also cheaper.
The next best news – apart from cutting off 15 minutes from the existing travel time – is that trains will be really frequent. In addition to the 3 express trains (特急) that will continue to run the existing (51 minute) route to the airport from Ueno, there will be 3 Sky Liners and 3 express trains running every hour on the new route. That’s 9 trains an hour to Narita from Ueno. That’s even better than Hong Kong’s Airport Express (機場快綫, 5 trains per hour) which anyone who has used will agree is a very efficient system. How will the Narita Express (N’EX) be able to compete with its frustrating 2 trains per hour timetable? (Currently Keisei has 55% of the market for train passengers to Narita but this is bound to increase post 2010.)
So, as someone thinking about where to live, my next question is to what it means for the Subway Asakusa Line (都営浅草線)? Currently you can sneak off the Keisei Line at Aoto Station (青砥駅) by changing to the Asakusa Line which means you can get to a slightly more central location than Nippori or Ueno. The Asakusa Line also crosses a few more subway lines (not to mention the Keihin line (京急) to Haneda Airport (羽田空港)) than Kesei does which just increases my options that little bit more. The bad news is that there aren’t any concrete plans for allowing the new high-speed train to travel down the Asakusa Line which brings me back to square one (the Nippori/Ueno location problem).
Apparently the government isn’t too happy about this as the Transport Ministry (国道交通省, kokudokotsusho) want to cut the travel time between Narita and Haneda dramatically before the runway expansions planned at each airport are completed in 2012. Fat chance of that. Keisei’s management have made it clear that it would be impossible without more tunnel space at some key stations on the subway line that would enable an express train to overtake the normal slower trains. But hold on a second, the government is talking about shaving off over 40 minutes from the current travel time (106 min à 65 min). That’s going to take more than just a bit of improvising underground near Asakusabashi (浅草橋駅).
So I can hear you thinking it over. What if they did get their act together and link Narita and Haneda with a high-speed express train? Would I use it? Is the Asakusa Line really that much more helpful compared to say catching a bus from Narita to a more convenient location? This is the icing on the cake for those of you who plan to be in Tokyo long term. Unless Hatoyama scraps it, the government will start including funds in their budget from this year enough to build a new station on the Asakusa Line that links it directly to Tokyo Station (東京駅) by 2015. Nice. I’m not quite sure how it would work exactly. It’s supposed to be somewhere between Takaramachi (宝町駅 ) and Nihonbashi (日本橋駅) but that smells to me of another long, sweaty underground walk like they have at the existing Nihonbashi station for the Asakusa Line. It all sounds a little too aggressive to me. I don’t think I would bank on it being completed on time especially since Ishihara wasn’t successful with his bid for the 2016 Olympics. Fat chance.
For densha otaku (電車オタク, train buffs) out there, the new train will travel up to 160km / hr. Part of the track it will use is the existing Hokuso Line which only travels at 105km/hr but because it was built with the same gauge size as the new line (1435mm, the same as the shinkansen (新幹線, bullet train)) they’ll be able to run the newer, faster trains without a problem. In case you’re wondering, the competing JR Narita line only has a 1067mm gauge size which explains why it could never handle a fast train like the shinkansen.
But doesn’t that just strike you as poor planning? Why on earth wouldn’t JR have extended the shinkansen to reach Narita? They could have at least built their existing line on a wider gauge size so that they could potentially upgrade it one day. Funny you should ask. I’d always blamed this gross inefficiency on the ex-bureaucrats at JR but it turns out we have the selfless Japanese people to blame for that hour of pain we experience every time we travel out to Narita. Yep, the bureaucrats had it right. The national government actually approved the construction of a Narita Shinkansen (成田新幹線) and even purchased acres of land in Tokyo and Chiba before the idea was scrapped. At the time, the politically powerful residents of East Tokyo, Chiba and also the left-wing were up in arms at the idea of building a noisy train through their backyards that wouldn’t even stop near their houses. Sounds like that old lady who refused to sell her house to the Narita Airport and now lives right under the flight path of the second runway. Edogawa Ward (江戸川区) actually took the Minister for Transport (運輸大臣) to the Supreme Court in order to stop the construction!!
If you’ve ever gone to Disneyland then I’m sure you’ve wondered why the underground station for the Keiyo line (京葉線) at Tokyo Station is in such an inconvenient place? Well that “hole in the ground” was originally planed for the shinkansen station (as they were going to continue it through to Shinjuku). After canceling the shinkansen the government had to come up with an excuse to “use” the hole and hence we have the Keiyo Line. They also spent 90 billion yen building a meaningless piece of track from Narita to Tsuchiya (土屋) called the Narita Airport High Speed Rail. Oh, and you guessed it. It was completed 15 years behind schedule AND wasn’t even high speed! Because they built it on small 1067mm tracks, Keisei has had to build another wider line right next to it in order to complete their real “High Speed” railway! Gotta love JR.
I wonder how much the new train will cost passengers to use. The Hokuso Line that it will be an extension of is pretty expensive at the moment (It currently costs 1070 yen just to get from Nippori to Imba Nippon Medical School (印旛日本医大駅, Imbanipponidai) which is about the price you pay to get all the way to Narita on the existing Keisei line if you don’t use the Sky Liner. But hey, even if it costs 3,000 yen like the Narita Express it is still probably worth it for returning that extra 15 minutes of your life that JR robs from us each time. And I’m sure that the regular express will be cheaper for the day before pay day.
Here is the plan, for where the new track will run. It really seems to cut a beeline for the airport:
So back to my original worry: Where should I live? Well, if I could bare living out in the boondocks, I guess the obvious places where land prices are likely to rise are where the new express (特急) is scheduled to stop: Takasago (高砂駅), Shin-Kamagaya (新鎌ヶ谷駅), Chiba New Town Central (千葉ニュータウン中央駅), Imba Nippn Medical School and Narita New Town North (成田ニュータウン北駅). Hmmm. That’s a tough call. Nothing against those of you living in Chiba but it just feels soooo far away from it all!
I feel like I’m back at square one. What’s it like living in Takasgo? Where do you think I should live? I look forward to your comments below.
Official site for more information: www.new-skyliner.jp