NAGANO '98 Kids' Info Center



To Nagano by Train: The Challenge of the Usui Pass

Back in 1893, railway engineers surmounted great obstacles to clear the way for the opening of an 11.2-kilometer (7.0-mile) stretch from Yokokawa to Karuizawa on the Shin'etsu Line linking Tokyo and Nagano. The effort took seven years.

The main obstacle was a steep 552-meter (1,810-foot) incline leading up to the Usui Pass. It was decided to use the Abt system developed for Swiss and German mountain lines. In it, a notched third rail is laid between the other rails, and the locomotive pulls the train up the slope with a cogwheel. With construction of 26 tunnels and 18 bridges, it proved an arduous undertaking.

Electric locomotives replaced steam ones in 1912. But it was not until 1963 that the Abt system was abandoned in favor of the EF63 locomotive, affectionately known as the "sherpa of the pass." On the way up, it pushed the train from the rear, and came down at the head, with brakes on. Yokokawa Station became famous for the special bowl-shaped lunches sold to passengers waiting for the locomotive to be hooked up.

The arrival of the Nagano Shinkansen ("bullet train") has meant the closure of the Yokokawa-Karuizawa line after 104 years of service. Not only train buffs, but many others will miss this scenic line, traversed by cars slowly passing through the tunnels of the Usui Pass.