• Coronavirus

Shinkansen trains launch cars just for teleworking

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A woman works in a “train office” on Monday morning aboard a Hokuriku Shinkansen train.

Japan Railways Group firms operating Shinkansen lines have launched teleworking cars on their bullet trains, in which passengers can use mobile phones and personal computers and even take part in teleconferences.

The service began Monday on the Hokkaido, Tohoku, Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. Nozomi trains on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines have offered similar services since last month, with one of the cars on each train set aside exclusively for business passengers.

JR firms are attempting to win back such passengers, whose numbers plunged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as new work styles becoming increasingly common.

IT devices available

On Monday morning, passengers were seen facing their PCs in the teleworking cars on trains leaving Tokyo Station. Each train has turned its No. 8 car into an “office aboard a train,” except for the Tsurugi trains running on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line.

The service is available only on weekdays — except during busy periods — and reservations are not required. As long as a passenger has a ticket for a non-reserved seat or a ticket for a reserved seat in another car of the Shinkansen train, they can use the teleworking car for no additional fee.

Every car has about 100 seats, but passengers are asked to keep at least one seat empty between them to prevent infections with the novel coronavirus.

Previously, passengers who wanted to use a cell phone on a Shinkansen train had to leave their car and go into a vestibule. People tapping on keyboards would sometimes draw complaints from passengers seated around them. However, in the teleworking cars, people can use their cell phone at their seat and also participate in teleconferences if they use earphones.

In some cars of the Hayabusa trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, passengers can borrow headphones and smart glasses enabling users to see images and information on PC screens on them, thereby eliminating privacy concerns. They can also borrow a partition to block others’ view, and Wi-Fi device can be rented for ¥200 per use.

Nozomi trains on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines use their No. 7 cars exclusively for such passengers. By Nov. 11, about 240,000 passengers had used the service on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line alone. However, passengers have to reserve a seat via a members-only online booking service, prompting requests for tickets to also be available at stations.

Footbath

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have refrained from sending their employees on business trips, and working at home has taken hold. This has dealt a serious blow to the JR firms operating Shinkansen lines. For instance, the number of passengers using Tokaido Shinkansen trains is only around half the level before the coronavirus spread.

“We want to increase our revenue by giving passengers an environment in which they can travel and telework comfortably, thus responding to their business needs,” an official at JR Tokai (Central Japan Railway Co.) stressed.

A growing number of booth-like shared office spaces are being installed at railway stations, for rental to individuals. JR East (East Japan Railway Co.) will offer from next month a fixed-rate coffee service at shops within stations, primarily aimed at passengers on a business trip. People can drink up to three cups of coffee a day for a monthly fixed charge of ¥2,500 under the service, through which JR East is seeking to attract passengers who use the trains frequently.

There are also moves to respond to changing work styles.

Starting on Dec. 3, JR East’s Sendai branch office will transform its Toreiyu Tsubasa train on the Yamagata Shinkansen, on which passengers can enjoy a footbath, into an office train. The new service will be launched as part of its workcation campaign, crafted jointly with the prefectural government of Yamagata to convey the charms of the prefecture to businesspersons working in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

On Dec. 3, the train will leave Ueno Station in Tokyo at 11 a.m. and travel for about 3 hours, stopping at every station in Yamagata Prefecture. The train will be furnished with a tatami-mat floor, where people can sit and put their PCs and documents on a table.

Passengers can also borrow a battery charger and audio equipment to prevent their conversations from being heard by those around them. With 100 slots available, about 80 reservations have already been made.

An official at the branch office said: “We’ve set up a space where people can relax during breaks in their work. We hope they enjoy their holidays after arriving here, spending time on sightseeing, for instance.”

Transporting food

Amid shrinking numbers of commuters and other passengers, JR firms have launched food-transport services on Shinkansen trains.

Utilizing the fast, smooth ride aboard the Shinkansen trains, they can deliver foods in as good condition as possible.

On Nov. 11, JR East loaded one of its Joetsu Shinkansen trains exclusively with local foods and products. Red sea bream and northern shrimp from markets in Niigata and freshly brewed local sake were stored in about 100 expandable polystyrene boxes and delivered to shops in Tokyo, including fish dealers.

JR West (West Japan Railway Co.) and JR Kyushu (Kyushu Railway Co.) have already launched endeavors to transport fresh foods and the like to urban areas.

At Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata stations, JR East is using Shinkansen trains to transport not only fresh foods but also other goods brought into the stations. People can apply for the service up to half an hour before a train’s departure, even for just one package.