Trains, buses vie for passengers on Tokyo-Narita route


In the run-up to next year's anticipated rise in international travel demand, last month, the curfew on landings at Narita Airport was extended to midnight.

Weekly Playboy (Nov 25) also noted that the Keisei Railway Co introduced a new schedule from Oct 26, in which the number of Skyliner special expresses running between the Narita airport terminals and Keisei Ueno Station would be increased 1.4-fold, effectively shortening waiting time between train departures from 40 minutes to 20.

This new development has not escaped notice of JR East, operator of the Narita Express trains,  which service the capital at 30-minute intervals.

A writer who covers rail transport tells the magazine that Keisei clearly has the upper hand.

"Connections by the Skyliner from Keisei Ueno to Narita Terminal 1 take 43 minutes, at a cost of 2,520 yen," he points out. "In contrast, a ticket from Tokyo Station to Narita Airport takes 53 minutes and costs 3,070 yen. Keisei has always been faster, but now with increased frequency, they've become the train of choice."

The newly introduced aerodynamic 3100-type Skyliner cars boast a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour, making them the fastest non-Shinkansen trains in Japan.

According to a survey of passenger access to Narita Airport conducted last March, the JR and Keisei are roughly tied at 14% and 13%, respectively. But the breakdown by nationality is interesting. While 10% of Japanese preferred the JR and 12% the Keisei Line, among foreigners, the figures were 18% in favor of JR and 14% for the Skyliner.

"The higher popularity of the JR is due to the use of the JR's Japan Rail Pass by many foreign visitors," the aforementioned writer explains. "For an outlay of 29,650 yen, they can, with certain limitations, ride on JR trains anywhere in the country."

"For foreigners visiting Japan for the first time, the Japan Rail Pass makes a lot of sense, but many repeat visitors only expect to go around the Tokyo metropolis," observes Shuichiro Ono, an authority on inbound visitor travel. "These travelers are more likely to prefer the Keisei Skyliner for its lower cost."

The message seems clear: To attract more customers, Keisei needs to aim at the repeaters.

Ono also offered the railway a few suggestions.

"Presently Skyliner seats are all reserved. For travelers with heavy baggage, identifying where to sit is a hardship, so I think Keisei should consider initiating non-reserved seating in some cars as well. Since seating on the rival Narita Express is also reserved only, some people will find it appealing to be able to sit wherever  they want."

Another fairly recent development, from last year, is the so-called LCC bus service, which links Tokyo Station with Narita for a flat 1,000 yen, in about 70 minutes. The aforementioned passenger survey found that the LCC service has already carved out a 5% share of the overall market.

Still, Keisei can offer a better deal.

"Yes, the LCC bus is cheap, but it can only carry a maximum of 40 passengers," the aforementioned travel writer points out. "And you can't be certain you won't get bogged down in traffic. If you want to save money, just take the regular Keisei limited express trains. They have bench seats, like on regular commuter trains, but they'll get you from Ueno to the Narita terminal in about one hour for just 1,270 yen."

Overall, however, the Skyliner still gets the nod for the best combination of comfort and speedy service. "The new model 3100-type cars are fast, and offer additional space for suitcases and other amenities like Wi-Fi," the writer said.

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I usually use the bus to and from Narita to Tokyo. There is a bus that is only 1,000 yen and it takes you to Tokyo Station and Ginza and is usually about 70 minutes and all your luggage is stored under the bus so you don't have to worry about finding space like on a train.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Since 1964, Japan has had what is arguably the world's most famous train. Fifty-give years on, not a single one of them services a domestic or international airport. I find this to be bizarre. It's like the Japanese don't understand that people who fly have to go somewhere after they land.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@NCIS, apparently there were plans for a Shinkansen extension to Narita, but those were shelved after the massive protests around the time of the airport’s opening. It certainly would have been nice to have, but at other train options have improved in the last several years.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Not everyone wants to go to central Tokyo. Many others need to go to even closer places and yet it takes much much longer to cover a shorter distance simply because most trains either go directly to central Tokyo or go south. Can either of the two rail companies please offer more trains between the airport and Narita station? Just one per hour just doesn't do it.

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Can either of the two rail companies please offer more trains between the airport and Narita station? Just one per hour just doesn't do it.

Several thousand people commute to work at Narita airport every day, and I'm certain they have ways of getting there from the JR and Keisei Narita rail stations than one train per hour.

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Narita? I try to use Haneda as much as possible!

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@Mr Kipling, I couldn't agree more. In the half-dozen times I've visited Japan in the same number of years, I arrived at Narita twice, and used the JR Express to Tokyo Station (almost an hour). The other four times I arrived at Haneda and used the monorail to Hammamatsucho (about twenty minutes).

And contrary to what Shuichiro Ono, an authority on inbound visitor travel said for the article, not all foreign visitors hang around Tokyo when they return to the country. After my first trip, in March 2011, I've stayed in Tokyo for only two nights at the beginning of my six-week adventures, and one night at the end, all at the same hotel, close to Hammatsucho Station where I get off and on the monorail to Haneda. It's a helluva lot more convenient that Narita.

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