Japan’s oldest steam locomotive turns 100

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Locomotive No. 58654 is greeted by fans as it arrives Friday at JR Yatsushiro Station in Kumamoto Prefecture.

KUMAMOTO — Japan’s oldest steam locomotive still in service celebrated its 100th anniversary on Friday with a special run between Kumamoto and Yatsushiro in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Locomotive No. 58654 was produced in 1922 and served various parts of Kyushu before being taken out of service in 1975, traveling 3.34 million kilometers, or 84 times the circumference of the Earth. The train was revived in 1988 to run on the Hohi line as SL Aso BOY. The train was withdrawn from service again in 2005 due to damage, but resumed operation in 2009, as SL Hitoyoshi, after repairs to operate as a tourist service on Kyushu’s Hisatsu Line Railway Co. (JR Kyushu).

Torrential rains in July 2020 caused severe damage along the line, so services were only able to operate recently. The train now runs on the Kagoshima Line between Kumamoto and Tosu, Saga Prefecture.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A birthday cake for centenary locomotive No. 58654 is seen at JR Yatsushiro Station, Kumamoto Prefecture, on Friday.

JR Kyushu announced that the company would halt operation of SL Hitoyoshi in October due to difficulties in obtaining spare parts for the train. Passenger numbers have also dropped sharply due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The 132 places for the special race were full. A 53-year-old housewife from Saga recalls: “I remember taking this train with my child when he was little. I am sad that it is removed.

A birthday cake was unveiled at a ceremony held at JR Yatsushiro Station to celebrate the anniversary. JR Kyushu chairman Yoji Furumiya said about 900,000 passengers have used the locomotive since its revival 30 years ago. Furumiya said, “We would like to thank everyone for their full-fledged efforts to keep the locomotive running before its retirement at the end of fiscal 2023.”

Jose P. Rogers