Even before I moved to Japan, one of my favorite models was the EH500 “Kintaro” freight locomotive. Its bulk and angular profile are all business, but its bright livery and smooth sides give it an unexpected sleekness. But it doesn’t run on the lines I was most interested in modeling, so I never really learned much about it.
That all changed when I found myself living in a house with a view of the Tohoku Mainline, where EH500s head up most of the freight trains. They thunder by all day – sometimes several an hour – hauling container flat cars and oil tankers. Sometimes the freight trains are hauled by a different type of locomotive, but it’s the Kintaros that always catch my eye.
A little over ten years ago, these locomotives didn’t exist. The mainline route from Tokyo to Hokkaido (the northernmost main island of Japan) covers several power districts with incompatible electrical systems (AC vs. DC, various voltages and frequencies). Different segments also use different ATC systems. In the northern mountains and going through the Seikan tunnel (under the straight between the main island and Hokkaido), the trains must be able to handle a 2.5% grade. And in the winter, trains move between the rather mild Tokyo and northern regions where temperatures plummet and the snow piles high. To manage the variety of challenges, JR Freight used a variety of locomotives for a single trip: EF65s between Tokyo and Kuroiso, ED75s north of Kuroiso to Aomori, and ED79 double-headers through the Seikan tunnel.
JR Freight decided to develop a single locomotive that could run in such varied conditions, and in 1998 the prototype EH500-901 was delivered to Sendai for testing. Regular production and operation started in March, 2001. JR Freight now has sixty of them in the fleet, and more are on the way.
The EH500 is a big locomotive. It is 82’ long, weighs almost 135 tons, and its more than 5300 horsepower motor drives all eight axles. Those numbers might not actually be that impressive – until you consider that this is a narrow gauge (3’6”) locomotive. It’s articulated in the center, giving it the look of back-to-back A units, but the two halves contain different equipment and can’t operate independently.
Railfans categorize the locomotives into four phases based on obvious spotting features. The first phase is represented by a single locomotive: EH500-901, the prototype. The first two production units, 1 and 2, are considered the first generation. They are painted a darker red than the prototype, and there are many differences in windows, louvers, and other details. For the second generation, locomotives 3 to 9, the headlights were moved to a higher position and the “Kintaro” cartoon logo was added to the side. The third generation locomotives, 10 onward, have yet another shade of red for the body color and no black mask around the windows.
N scale models are made by Kato (2nd and 3rd generation) and Tomix (all three generations). Keep an eye out at the shows: you may well see one of these striking models on a layout. And now, when you do, you’ll know a little bit about the real train.