Tokaido Shinkansen Ends Food Cart Service Due to Falling Sales and Labor Shortage

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A JR Tokaido Shinkansen train staff member serves a Sujata ice cream from the on-board trolley service on a Shinkansen train.

The Tokaido Shinkansen line connecting Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations discontinued its food cart service on Tuesday due to a shortage of workers and declining sales.

Onboard food service has been an attraction of the line since its opening in 1964.

Although there have been popular products such as a Shinkansen-exclusive rock-solid ice cream, onboard sales have not been able to keep up with the popularity of convenience stores and other shops at stations. There is also the problem of a shortage of labor.

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) plans to explore different forms and new ways of providing services.

Sales halved

Japan News file photo
The onboard food trolley service

“The hot coffee I bought from the food carts was a unique travel experience. I’m disappointed, but I guess that’s just the times we’re in,” said a 58-year-old man from Nagoya who was at Tokyo Station on a business trip on Oct. 24.

According to JR Tokai, when onboard sales began with the opening of the Tokaido Shinkansen, sales staff sold boxed lunches and hot tea at meal times, and made rounds at other times with drinks, weekly magazines, souvenirs and other items.

It is not clear when the food trolley service was adopted, JR Tokai said.

Sales peaked in the early 1990s, when nearly 10 sales staff sometimes boarded the trains.

However, as the number of convenience stores and shops inside and outside stations gradually increased and more people brought their own food and beverages onto trains, onboard sales declined by half over the 10 years through fiscal 2018.

The shortage of sales staff has also become serious. It has become difficult to maintain the service as some trains have only two sales staff instead of the usual three per train.

Onboard sales are disappearing from bullet trains nationwide. All of the Hokkaido and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, as well as part of the Tohoku Shinkansen line, stopped the service in March 2019. The Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen trains have stopped selling boxed lunches and other items, and have reduced the number of items available.

On the other hand, the Sanyo Shinkansen line will continue the service on Nozomi trains with some exceptions. On Sanyo Shinkansen trains that connect directly with the Tokaido Shinkansen, sales staff will board at Shin-Osaka Station to provide a trolley service between that station and Hakata Station.

Popular ice cream

Sujata’s Shinkansen-exclusive ice cream is the biggest hit in onboard sales.

Sujata High Quality Ice Cream, which is frozen so hard that it cannot be easily scooped with a spoon, became the talk of the town. It was eventually dubbed “Shinkansen Sugoi Katai Ice” (Super hard Shinkansen ice cream).

According to JR Tokai, the reason for the hardness is that the ice cream is cooled with dry ice at a temperature of about minus 70 C to prevent it from melting when it is sold from an onboard cart.

Hot coffee is another popular item that many people consider an enjoyable Shinkansen experience.

Hoping that passengers will continue to enjoy the Shinkansen’s specialties even after the trolley service ends, JR Tokai is installing vending machines for both products at one to three locations on each platform where Tokyo-bound Nozomi trains stop, except at Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama. The installation of the vending machines is expected to be completed by Nov. 1.

The temperature setting of the Sujata ice cream vending machine is about minus 20 C, so while the ice cream may not be that hard, “it is hard enough,” a JR Tokai official said.

Courtesy of JR Central Retailing Plus Co.
A Sujata ice cream

While the trolley service will end for regular cars, Green Car passengers on Nozomi and Hikari trains will be able to enjoy onboard sales even after Nov. 1.

QR codes on each seat will allow passengers to order food and beverages by scanning the codes with a smartphone or other mobile device, and a staff member will deliver the items to the passenger.

The trains will offer 21 items, including the Shinkansen-exclusive ice cream and coffee.

“We would like to enhance our services in new ways in response to the changing times,” JR Tokai President Shunsuke Niwa said.

Reviewing services

The Tokaido Shinkansen is also undergoing a series of other service reviews.

Smoking rooms on Shinkansen trains, which have been in place since 2007, will be phased out next spring in response to growing health awareness and declining smoking rates.

The former smoking spaces will be used for drinking water for emergencies such as when the train stops for a long time between stations.

JR Tokai is also planning to make all Nozomi seats reserved during the three peak periods of Golden Week and Bon holidays, as well as the year-end and New Year’s holidays from this year onward in order to reduce platform queues and prevent train schedule disruptions.

Unreserved seats will be maintained on Hikari and Kodama trains.

The company will also focus on improving its services for business travelers, after the pandemic led to a decline in business travel.

As of Oct. 20, JR Tokai revamped its business-oriented “S Work vehicle” for business travelers by adding a new seat configuration with a partition in the center of the three-person seats to effectively create space for 1.5 seats, improving comfort.

The Hikari and Kodama trains will also have carriages for business passengers.