Monday, January 1, 2018

Takes a Lickin' and Keeps On Tickin'

2 streetcars that survived A-bomb are still running in Hiroshima

The Asahi Shimbun  by HIROKI HASHIMOTO/ Staff Writer  January 1, 2018

The No. 651 tram, known as “hibaku densha” (train victimized by the nuclear bomb), runs on the Aioibashi bridge near the Atomic Bomb Dome, in the early morning in Hiroshima’s Naka Ward. (Koichi Ueda)

HIROSHIMA--Haruno Horimoto was 15 years old when she hopped on the first streetcar after a suspension in operations in Hiroshima. She noticed the relative silence of the passengers, and the surprise that service was running.

Remarkably, tram operations were available just three days after an atomic bomb reduced the city to rubble on Aug. 6, 1945.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that two of the streetcars damaged on the blast are still running today.

The streetcar operator, Hiroshima Electric Railway Co., provided encouragement to the bombed city with its quick resumption of services in some areas of the devastated city. Its preservation of the streetcars now provides lessons to younger generations about the horrors of war.

The now-deceased Horimoto was studying at the rail company’s domestic science school for girls at the time. Her notes about her streetcar ride on Aug. 9, 1945, are included in the history of Hiroshima Electric Railway.

“Many of the passengers were keeping silent,” she wrote. “There were various people on the tram, such as one who was surprised at ‘the streetcar operating,’ a person who expressed appreciation by saying, ‘Walking on the iron bridge is horrible,’ and people suffering from burns or having spots on their skin.”

Recalling how she decided to ride the tram that day, Horimoto wrote: “When I was about to go out to search for my mother as I usually did, the teacher told us, ‘Trams are to resume operations today in the city, so someone needs to serve as a crew member.’”

According to Hiroshima Electric Railway’s history, 185 of its 1,241 employees were killed in the atomic bomb attack, while 266 were injured. In addition, 108 of its 123 cars were significantly damaged.

One of the trams that ran in the bombed-out ruins of the city was the No. 651 streetcar. Produced in 1942, it was deemed the latest model at the time.

After repair work was completed, the No. 651 resumed services in March 1946.

The No. 651, along with the No. 652 of the same model, are still operating in Hiroshima, 73 years after the world’s first nuclear weapon attack.


Surrounded by other neatly arranged trams, the No. 651 is currently kept at the Senda tram shed of Hiroshima Electric Railway, which is based in the city’s Naka Ward.

The tram boasts the ambiance of the Showa Era (1926-1989). Although the wheels are rusted and covered in dust, the contact part between the wheels and track shines dully as if stressing that the tram is still operational.

The No. 651 streetcar was running within 1 kilometer of ground zero. It, along with the No. 652, are now called “hibaku densha” (train victimized by the nuclear bomb).

On a recent day, a maintenance worker with tools in his hands was under the body of the No. 651 for an inspection that is conducted once every three months.

Devices set up at the driver’s seat are all designed to be manipulated by hand. Wipers must be moved manually, and the height of the pantograph is adjusted by pulling a string.

Both sides of the tram have small scratches and distortions, while the paint is chipped at several points.

Surface asperities can easily be found on the window frames.

“Parts rotted by rain are removed and replaced with putty,” said Kazuhiko Shimizuike, 56, head of the company’s vehicle inspection section.

The bomb’s blast torched the wooden components of the No. 651, including the doors and interior. Only the iron frame and undercarriage remained.

The repeatedly painted body and many surface asperities underscore the maintenance workers’ devotion to repairing and renovating the vehicle.


The Nos. 653 to 655 trams of the same model also survived the atomic bombing.

The No. 653 and No. 654 vehicles retired from commercial operations in 2006, but the No. 653 has begun limited runs around Aug. 6 every year since 2015.

The Nos. 651 to 653 streetcars are able to run on tracks, so citizens can charter them to teach children about the tragedy of war and the importance of peace.

The retired No. 654 tram was donated to the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima’s Asa-Minami Ward.

The No. 654 tram on display at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima’s Asa-Minami Ward (Hiroki Hashimoto)

Both the No. 653 and 654 were repainted in gray and blue, the same coloring as the time of the atomic bombing.

During Japan’s period of high economic growth from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, a nationwide road network was built, and more people became car owners.

With demand growing for mass transportation services, rail operators introduced larger streetcars. Hiroshima Electric Railway bought larger vehicles that had previously been used in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and elsewhere. It also scrapped the No. 655 in 1967 after an accident, according to company officials.

The company continued to operate the relatively large No. 651 streetcar even during the period. Buoyed by support from locals, the No. 651 is still operating in Hiroshima.

Various types of streetcars can be seen in Hiroshima, giving the city the nickname of “traveling museum” among its residents.

Newer, high-speed streetcars easily catch up to the No. 651 tram, even when it is running at maximum velocity. Therefore, the Nos. 651 and 652 are currently available only on weekday mornings, when the trams are crowded with commuters and students.

Every year just before Aug. 6, the two old trams are used as classrooms for students to receive lessons from “hibakusha” atomic bomb survivors on the significance of maintaining peace.

Park Namjoo, 85, a hibakusha who was on a streetcar when the atomic bomb exploded, has served as such a teacher for more than 10 years.

“The hibaku densha show the scars of war,” Park said. “I want them to tell posterity that warfare only results in tragedies.”

The No. 651 tram is now 76 years old.

Atsushi Hiramoto, 55, head of Hiroshima Electric Railway’s car management division, said he is proud that many senior employees carefully maintain the tram to keep it running.

“Since it uses analog technology, it can be kept operational almost eternally if proper maintenance is carried out,” he said. 

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