Japan's bullet train adds new luxury features: an airport-like lounge, wider seats and free drinks

Dinner with sake, an airport-like lounge and roomier seats.

That's the offer on bullet trains as the Shinkansen rolls into Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, home to some of the country's best ski resorts, for the first time.

Starting Saturday, Hokkaido Railway will run trains at a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour to whisk passengers between Tokyo and Hakodate in four hours and two minutes. That's only an hour longer than on a jet plane. With luxury offerings, bullet trains are giving the nation's two largest carriers ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines a run for their money.

"It could be a very pleasant experience," said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research in Tokyo, who rides the bullet train to Nagoya or Osaka and back about once every two months.

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Japan's high-speed trains, known as Shinkansen, have expanded their network since their debut in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Bullet-train passenger numbers at 340 million last fiscal year were more than three times the figure for domestic air travellers.

Bullet trains are gaining more ground against airlines. When the Hokuriku link opened last year, it cut the travel time between Tokyo and Kanazawa, a city in central Japan to two hours 28 minutes, and made it faster than flying. As passenger numbers tumbled by as much as 50 per cent, ANA cut the number of flights to the region.

"At this point we aren't taking any special measures with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen line," All Nippon Airways President Osamu Shinobe told reporters in Tokyo last month. "Considering the time it takes on the train, we don't think that airline passengers will be lured away anytime soon."

Still, not everyone is enthused by a four-hour train ride. So the focus on luxury and price is critical, said Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities Economic Research Institute.

"Four hours in a train is quite boring," Kubota said. "They have to compete in other areas such as service."

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Passengers on the GranClass can check into a lounge at Tokyo station before boarding. Train seats are 52 centimetres (20 inches) wide, compared with 50 centimetres in ANA's business class. The seat pitch, a measure of legroom, spans 130 centimetres, three centimetres more than on ANA.

Business and first-class travellers also get complimentary drinks, snacks, Internet access and newspapers in the business lounge beforehand. There will be 18 first class seats on each of the 10 daily return trains to Tokyo, along with 55 business class and 658 regular seats.

"We're targeting wealthy travellers and business people," said Akira Hidetaka, head of the sales planning department at View Card, a credit card company that operates the lounge with JR East.

The bullet train is also generally cheaper. On the day the line opens, the lowest business class fare on ANA to Hakodate from Tokyo's Haneda airport is 44,900 yen ($528). That compares with 38,280 yen for a one-way first class ticket on the bullet train.

By 2030, the Hokkaido line will be extended to the prefecture's capital Sapporo, further intensifying competition with planes.

The bullet train link will be "much more competitive if it connects to Sapporo because it's quite expensive to go there by airplane," said Dan Lu, an analyst at JPMorgan Securities Japan.

Bloomberg

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