It’s not one of Japan’s most famous cities but Chiba City is one of the most recognizable thanks to its influence on the aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s seminal film “Blade Runner” and its appearance as setting of William Gibson’s classic novel “Neuromancer”.
One of Chiba’s main attractions is that it has, according to Guinness World Records, the world’s longest suspended monorail systems. It’s both an architectural wonder and a train lover’s paradise. The monorail is 15.2 kilometers of track connecting areas of Chiba which aren’t particularly well-served by regular trains or buses. The Chiba Urban Monorail, which started operations in 1988, has two lines, Line 1 running from Chiba-Minato to Kencho-Mae and Line 2 from Chiba to Chishirodai.
The Chiba Urban Monorail introduced its latest train, Urban Flyer, a few years ago with great success. eightframe were lucky enough to get a tour of the new train and an interview with Mr. Hirohito Suzuki, a driver with Chiba Urban Monorial.
Paul McInnes (PM): What’s your background? Have you always liked trains?
Hirohito Suzuki (HS): I left school in 1995 and I’ve been with Chiba Monorail for about 20 years and been driving for 15 years. For the 5 years before I became a driver I worked as train station staff. Two years at Tsuga station and three years at Chiba station.
I really loved trains as a young boy and as I was going through school I found out it was a possible job so I went for it.
PM: What’s the training program like for Monorail drivers?
HS: Well, it’s basically the same training for all the different types of train companies – JR, Odakyu etc…But we had to study a lot about things such as law, train rules, mathematics and then you do 3 months in the seat next to a licensed and experienced driver. At the end of that process you take a test and if you pass you can become a driver.
PM: Is there any difference between driving a Monorail and a regular train?
HS: As for training and testing it’s basically the same but because the Monorail is unique and basically drives in the sky we need to do some special training.
PM: What’s it like to drive a train in the sky? HS: On a clear day you can see for miles and miles and sometimes we can even see Mount Fuji from our cabin. It always feels great to see that.
PM: Do you ever feel scared?
HS: Not particularly but when there are building cranes below us it can feel quite scary because it’s hard to gauge how high they are. And in the new Urban Flyer trains we have see-through windows on the floor which can sometimes be scary.
PM: Why do they have the see through glass floor in the driver’s cabin?
HS: Basically we added the windows for the customers to add that level of fun for them. But the funny thing is I’m actually a little sacred of heights!
PM: How high is the Chiba Monorail at its peak?
HS: It’s 25 meters around Chiba Station.
PM: What’s your normal day like?
HS: For example, yesterday I started around 2pm and drove until the last train around midnight. Then I stayed at a special drivers’ room at Chiba station, to get some sleep, then I was up this morning ready to drive the first train about 5am and I worked until 9.30am this morning. But we tend to have very different and varied shifts.
PM: What do you enjoy most about your job?
HS: Well when the kids wave at us it’s great. And when we interact with the kids, families and customers it’s great. I like the fact, that in Japan, people can see the drivers drive in their compartment due to the clear glass. I think it’s a good idea.
PM: Do you get a lot of trainspotters?
HS: Well, because it’s a form of train it’s safe to say we get our fair share of train nerds. When we first released our newest train, Urban Flyer, lots of people came along to ride it and to take photos.
PM: When was the Urban Flyer introduced?
HS: July 8th 2012.
PM: What’s it like to drive the Urban Flyer compared to the older models?
HS: There are a lot more automatic functions on the Urban Flyer. It’s a lot easier for the driver. For example on the older trains we had to press buttons to give passengers information about the next stop but now it’s all automated.
PM: What’s your favorite part of the Monorail line?
HS: Near the Sports Center and Chiba Animal Park there are sometimes lots and lots of cherry blossoms so it’s really beautiful to see that as you’re driving along. And also at Anagawa station, on your right, you can see some spectacular views of Mount Fuji.
PM: Are there any plans to extend the monorail system in Chiba?
HS: Not presently. But the masterplan or main idea is to extend it sometime in the future but we don’t know yet. Nothing is set.
PM: It must be expensive to build the monorail system due to all the suspension and tracks etc…?
HS: Actually compared to the underground system it’s quite cheap.
PM: What’s it like in your cabin when there is an earthquake?
HS: It shakes a lot up there. You really feel it but I was lucky I wasn’t driving the day of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. I do know, however, that they closed the entire line for the whole day afterwards due to safety concerns and checks.
PM: What do you like to do to relax after a day of driving?
HS: I love surfing and I have two children so I love playing and having fun with them.
We wish to thank Hirohito Suzuki and the other staff of Chiba Urban Monorail for their assistance and kindness. Also a big thank you to Chris Nelson for all his help.
- Written by
- Paul McInnes
- Cover Photo provided by Chiba Urban Monorail Co., Ltd., Article stills by Austin James Rea