Two railway companies provide rail service between both terminals of Narita airport and downtown Tokyo, JR (Japan Rail) East Japan and Keisei. Keisei is cheaper, but which one you take depends on your ultimate destination.
Using the Keisei Railway to Nippori station and transferring there to a local train of JR will be the cheapest way. Nippori is served by two of the major local lines of JR, the Yamanote and the Keihin-Tohoko. By transferring to one or the other of these lines, on can reach most places in the inner Tokyo urban area, including Shinjuku, and also connect to all of the other local lines of JR in the Tokyo area.
However, if you are going to a station on the Yokosuka line, including such places as Yokohama and Kamakura, it would be more convenient to take a kaisoku (rapid train) -- not the Narita Express -- on JR East. The service of rapid trains is hourly, and most of these trains are through routed to the Yokosuka line. Reservations are not required. If you are going to Kamakura, do not forget to visit the Enoden, the local streetcar line.
The key to cheaper travel is *not* to use the Narita Express on JR East Japan or the Skyliner on the Keisei Railway and of course to travel by ordinary class rather than "green" (first) class. For example, on JR East Japan from the Airport to Tokyo Station, the fare on the Narita Express is 2,890 yen, and it takes an hour. The fare on the rapid train is 1,260 yen, and it takes one hour twenty minutes.
On the Keisei the fare on the Skyliner is 1,740 yen, and it takes 52 minutes from the airport to Ueno Station (downtown Tokyo). Skyliner departures are at 40 minute intervals. Reservations are required and obtainable up to 5 minutes before train time at the Keisei ticket office in both airport terminals.
The fare on a Keisei tokkyu (special express) or futsu (local) train is 940 yen. The special express train takes 1 hour 15 minutes, and the local takes two hours. No reservations are required. Special express train departures are at twenty minute intervals.
Tickets for trains other than the Narita Express or the Skyliner are usually purchased from machines. The instructions on the machines areusually in Japanese only. However, both railway companies serving the airport distribute booklets in English explaining how to use the system and the machines.
To make it easy you can buy stored value cards, called IO cards. These cards will let you through the station barriers at the beginning of your journey and at the end, when you pass through the barrier, will deduct the cost of your journey from the current value left on the card. If there is not enough value on the card to let you out, there is provision to pay the excess.
At the ticket offices of both railway companies at both Narita terminals the staff will try to sell you the expensive Narita Express or Skyliner tickets. Insist that you want the cheaper tickets.
As for the railway lines themselves, when Narita Airport was first opened, a railway station was built in the basement of what is now terminal one for a projected shinkansen from Tokyo. However, the projected shinkansen was never built.
For several years this station remained unused. Finally, as part of the construction of terminal two, the station at terminal one and the doubletrack tunnel leading to it were put to use, with a second station built in the tunnel section to serve terminal two. One track in the tunnel is used forthe JR East line, on 1.067 m track gauge. The other track in the tunnel is used by the Keisei Railway, on 1.435 m track gauge.
Thus, trains of two different railway companies run through the tunnel, each company using one track for trains going in both directions, and each track on a different gauge. Once outside the tunnel, the two lines go their own way. The JR line is single track, with a passing siding, to Narita City. The Keisei line becomes double track as soon at it leaves the tunnel.
Besides cost, another advantage of using local and express trains (rather than trains such as the Keisei skyliners) is that if you ride in the first car, you can have an unimpeded view from the front of the train. The driver's cab is the entire width of the car, but the bulkhead between the cab and the rest of the car is mostly window from the waist up. It will give you a interesting view of the countryside and you can play engineer at the same time, with full view of the controls and the instruments, including the speedometer.
For the Tokyo area there are a number of ride-at-will tickets. One is a one day ticket, called JR <free> joshaken, permittingunlimited riding on JR lines in central Tokyo. For somewhat more, there is a combined ticket, called JR toei <free> kippu, which will include the 3 toei subways (but not the other, eidan, subways) and the Arakawa tramway. Toei sells a one day ticket, called ichi-nichi-josha-ken, valid on the Arakawa trams, the 3 toei subway lines and city buses. There is also, I think, a ride-at-will ticket for the eidan subway lines, at one price, and various combinations, including maybe the toei lines and the JR Tokyo area lines, at higher prices.
Also of interest is the two-day JR Kamakura Enoshima <free> kippu, which permits free travel from Tokyo to Kamakura and unlimited travel on the local JR lines in the Kamakura area, the Enoden tramway line (worth a visit) and the Shonan monorail, all within the two day validity period. The Odakyu railway competes with their cheaper Enoshima Kamakura <free pass>, covering a return trip on their line from Shinjuku to Enoshima with unlimited riding on the Enoden but not the monorail. --
Technology and Transport Museums Sector
Canadian Museums Association