Japan’s wonderful railways (not just for train buffs)

A bullet train speeds past Mount Fuji (photo downloaded from the internet)

No description of a trip to Japan would be complete without talking about the country’s railways. The image of a bullet train speeding past Mount Fuji has become almost synonymous with the country itself; symbolising the combination of tradition and modernity that is supposed to make Japan so distinctive.

Certainly when they were launched in October 1964, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen (their Japanese name – l新幹線, meaning new trunkline) which could travel at speeds of up to 130 mph, were revolutionary. It would be 17 years before the rest of the world started to catch up with France launching its TGV service in 1981.

The super-cool looking JR 500 series Shinkansen

Now the Japanese high speed network covers over 1,700 miles and is still expanding. We passed a new line being built between Kanazawa and Kyoto and there are plans to extend the network to include the northern island of Hokkaido (which will include three tunnels of over 10 miles in length). And whilst currently Japanese trains are not the fastest in the world, having a maximum speed of 200 mph compared to some Chinese trains which run at 236 mph, the Japanese have recently started testing a train which would operate at speeds of up to 249 mph (400km/h).

A Shinkansen travelling at about 160 mph speeds through Himeji station

Travel on the trains is a revelation. Even at 180 mph (the fastest we have travelled) the ride is incredibly smooth and quiet, none of the jerking and rolling which often characterises train travel in Britain. The trains are air sealed so even when two pass in a tunnel, at a combined speed in excess of 300 mph, there is no discernible effect inside the carriage. . The trains are faultlessly clean, seats are comfortable with ample leg room. They are all airline style and aligned with the windows. Once great feature is that you always face forward because when the train changes direction the seats all get turned around. Every coach is a quiet coach and, it being Japan, everyone obeys the dictum to use their ‘phones in the vestibules at the end of the coach. And, of course, there is the legendary punctuality with trains arriving and departing almost to the second. It’s nearly enough to convince me of the merits of HS2.

But it’s not only the shinkansen that demonstrate the superiority of Japan’s railways over those in the UK. The railways provide a comprehensive network across Japan, almost anywhere can be reached by train. On all lines trains are regular, quiet, fast and comfortable. Even on a single track commuter line out of Nagano trains averaged speeds of around 50mph (in Britain it would be more like 30). These trains were also comfortable and quiet and some had observation cars at either end enabling great views.

Why not have trains like these in the UK?

What a contrast to the clapped out old ‘Pacers’ that are still in use in the UK.

Clapped out old British train
Nice, new Japanese train
Even local trains are clean and spacious inside

And it’s not just the shinkansen that are punctual. We’ve travelled on lots of trains – inter-city, regional, local commuter, and all have departed and arrived bang on time. And that means not within 5 or 10 minutes of the scheduled time, which counts as being ‘on time’ in the UK, but to the minute.

As a result of all this Japan’s rail network is the busiest in the world. In 2013-14 Japan’s railways carried 9.147 billion passengers (260 billion passenger-kilometres). In comparison, the UK network carried 1.3 billion people (62 billion passenger kilometres). The railways are also intensively used Japan has 27,000 km of line, Germany over 40,000 km but carries only 2.2 billion passengers per year. Railways in Japan carry 300 million passengers per kilometre of laid track more than double the second busiest system which is Switzerland with about 125 million and Japan is home to 46 of the world’s 50 busiest stations. (none of this includes the busy subway systems in that exist in several cities). Japan’s trains carry over 30% of all passenger journeys. In the UK the comparative figure is 9.5%. Only in relation to freight carried by rail does Japan not come top in just about any measure you care to identify.

So what makes Japanese railways so successful? Unfortunately for those of us who support renationalising Britain’s railways on the basis it will improve their performance, it is not because they are publicly owned and operated as a single company. Japan’s railways were privatised in 1987 when the publicly owned Japan Rail was split up into six separate regional companies. In addition there are many privately owned railways which operate services on just a few lines each but these include, for example, busy commuter lines out of Tokyo.

A recent study for the Netherlands railways which highlighted the major factors contributing to the success of Japan’s railways included things you might expect such as simple fares, a simple timetable, clean trains and high levels of reliability and punctuality. But just as, if not more important, was the culture of the organisation with Japanese railways demonstrating a very strong focus on customer service and a commitment to the company.

Some visible examples of how this works. All railway staff are always smartly dressed, train rivers wear uniforms that resemble those worn by airline pilots, and are unfailingly polite. As you come out of any station there will be someone at the gate who will bow as you go pass. When a high speed train arrives at its terminal station a cleaner will stand by each door, bow to each passenger as they get off, and then go on and immediately clean the already spotless train. Watching a train leave is fascinating. The white-gloved dispatcher will point smartly up and down the platform and call out—seemingly to no one—as trains glide in and out of the station. He, as it is almost always is, is using a system known as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate. Train drivers and guards use the same system. There is a high investment in staff development and retaining staff – turnover is apparently less than 1% per annum. Everyone knows what’s needed from them, and they follow the laid-down standards because they want to, and believe that paying customers deserve it. Perhaps the most surprising fact about Japan’s railways is that most of the companies actually make a profit and do not rely on subsidies from government, something that virtually no other railway network in the world can claim.

A worker practicising shisa kanko

I’m sure that not everything in the garden is rosy but compared Britain where the recent history of the railways is a litany of delayed and overcrowded trains, failure to deliver promised modernisation on time or to budget and an increasingly disaffected travelling public, Japan shows that things could be very different.

Not all trains are super fast – but they all look pretty!

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