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Transportation

Bullet train mystery: Snack carts trundle on despite slow sales

One of the charms of Japan travel, vendors do more than serve food and beverages

The tradition of serving food and drinks from carts will survive on Japan's Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train route.

NAGOYA -- Central Japan Railway will buck an industrywide trend and continue providing snack cart services on shinkansen bullet trains after its planned timetable change in March.

The vendors who move around from car to car have long been one of charms for passengers, but they play a bigger role than many think.

On the Tokaido Shinkansen route's Nozomi and Hikari trains that run between Tokyo and Osaka, salespeople known as pursers -- a name also used in the airline industry -- push carts filled with bento boxes, snacks, beer, hot coffee, ice cream and even limited-edition souvenirs.

However, the services have become a less common in Japan in recent years, with many operators scaling them down or pulling them altogether. East Japan Railway and West Japan Railway recently chose to shrink their unprofitable onboard food and drink businesses.

JR East ended in-car sales on most routes in March this year, while JR West reduced the service on the Hokuriku route between Tokyo and Kanazawa this July. Bullet train routes serving the northern island of Hokkaido and Kyushu in the south also no longer provide the service.

An N700A bullet train on JR Tokai's Tokaido Shinkansen line, which will continue offering food and drinks on board.

Operations are simply "not profitable on their own," said Akihiko Nakamura, chief executive of JR-Central Passengers, JR Central's subsidiary that runs in-car sales operations.

The segment has taken a hit from the wider variety of stores inside train stations. Many riders now choose to buy bento boxes and beverages before boarding trains, and a staff shortage presents an added headache.

Given all these factors, it may seem odd that JR Central has stuck with snack vendors. There are two main reasons behind the decision.

For one, its Tokaido Shinkansen route has a high percentage of business travelers who tend to be in a rush. With 470,000 passengers daily, trains run every few minutes. Several business travelers board just seconds before departure, with no time to buy food or drink. This ensures a steady appetite for in-car snacks.

Another reason to keep the food carts rolling is the sales staff's role in maintaining safety. Vendors on the Tokaido Shinkansen take on some of the duties of a train conductor.

Out of the three pursers on board the trains, two operate as vendors, while the third gives instructions and guides passengers in case of emergency and attends to sick travelers. For JR Central, pursers are an integral part of keeping the trains safe.

"Tokaido Shinkansen passengers tend to take long journeys, and in-car services are necessary for our customers," said Nakamura. JR-Central passenger segment revenue for the year to March 2019 was 34.9 billion yen ($320 million), with sales from stores inside stations making up about 70% of the total. The company is trying to increase sales in stations to make up for its unprofitable in-car sales.

Since taking the post of chief executive in July, Nakamura has been passionate about researching ekiben -- bento boxes sold in stations and on trains, making it a personal rule to try two kinds every day. Nakamura pays close attention to supply costs to try to make in-car sales more profitable, and perhaps more importantly, to keep the service alive.

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