Photo/Illutration Parcels of goods are loaded onto trucks that fit between the seats aboard a Shinkansen. (Provided by East Japan Railway Co.)

Some Shinkansen are carrying perishable freight along with passengers, as railway operators and food producers alike expand the use of high-speed trains for urgent goods.

Cargoes of live seafood, ripe fruits and other delicate goods are being packed aboard passenger cars across Japan's network of high-speed rail tracks.

“Our aim is to help revitalize local communities through delivering food products formerly available exclusively in certain zones to large cities,” said an official of the regional reinvigoration department of West Japan Railway Co. (JR West). “Our expectation is that, in turn, consumers in urban areas feel like going to their production spots.”

The initiative began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when Japan Railway companies looked to freight as a way to cover shortfalls in seat sales.

The rail operators found a loyal clientele from certain food producers and now are shipping a wider range of items.

One day in mid-June, the special-purpose Hayabusa No. 72 train ran from Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori Prefecture to Omiya Station in Saitama Prefecture.

It consisted of the usual 10 cars, but passengers sat only in the first five cars. The others were filled with goods down the aisles.

In all, 600 parcels were stashed between the seats. The packages included flatfish and scallop freshly caught in Mutsu Bay, off Aomori Prefecture. Also aboard were freshly baked apple pies and other articles.

Yobuko squid are seen swimming in June 2022. The squid were carried to Kyoto Station aboard a Shinkansen. (Provided by West Japan Railway Co.)

Until now, regular bullet trains could carry only 40 boxes of commercial cargo. They were restricted to the deck areas between carriages. 

With this in mind, East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) carried out tests using the passenger cabins.

There is a national imperative in this. Japan's freight sector may face a shortage of truck drivers when regulations are revised in 2024 to reduce working hours, bringing truck crews into line with other industries.

“The new Shinkansen-based offering will help to mitigate the problem,” said Takako Tsutsumiguchi, manager of JR East’s marketing headquarters. 

JR East first delivered goods aboard the Shinkansen network in 2017. It carried regional delicacies to Tokyo Station for a market-like event as part of efforts to help revitalize areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Then, when people stopped traveling amid the COVID-19 scare, a regular transportation service called Hakobyun was introduced in October 2021.

JR West and Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu) are taking similar approaches.

They offer high-speed parcels services for companies wanting to deliver seafood, vegetables and flowers picked that morning, with a degree of freshness that other forms of transport cannot offer.

Dubbing the service a “comfortable trip,” the railway companies are expanding into live fish and delicate fruits that need regulated temperatures and vibration-free carriage.

In May, barrels of craft beer packaged in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, were delivered to a cafe at Tokyo Station's Yaesu Exit for consumers to sample. The beer arrived aboard the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line.

The trains' vibration-free nature was important. 

“If beer in casks is shaken to generate foam, its fresh flavor would be lost,” said a JR East representative responsible for the project. “Delivering it quietly is important, too.”

In June last year, JR West sent a shipment of live Yobuko squid hauled ashore in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, to a department store in Kyoto more than 700 kilometers away.

The squid are vulnerable to vibrations and temperature fluctuations. It is difficult to keep them alive when transporting them over long distances.

In this trial, the 12 squid were kept in seawater aboard the Shinkansen. They arrived at the department store safely after six and a half hours and were served as fresh sashimi.

Shinkansen are also suitable for delicate ripe fruits.

Last summer, JR West and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) carried mature white peaches--a local specialty in Okayama Prefecture--to Nagoya Station for sale.

Deep red strawberries from Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, left on a trip to Tokyo Station carried by JR East.

Shinkansen tracks and trains expose freight to fewer knocks and vibrations than other forms of transport. This means perishable fruits can be delivered to consumers at the very moment of peak ripeness.