Anyone who experienced the Japanese trains has a story to tell… There are hundreds of stories about the punctuality, the speed or the cleanness of the Japanese trains. Nevertheless, what makes the Japanese trains so different? Of course, there’s no simple answer… but I’ll present you with some facts that may give an over-all picture…
Yamanote (green) & Keihin-Tohoku (blue) commuter trains near Akihabara Station
1. The Cooperation between Japanese Train Manufacturers
Let’s start with the beginning, the factories. What can be different about them? The technology involved? Maybe, but not only…
Taking into account just the high-speed trains, while the lead manufacturers from the rest of the world are competing with each other, researching and developing their own products (e.g. Alstom with the TGV, Siemens with the ICE ), in Japan the train manufacturers have been closely cooperating ever since the first Shinkansen was produced, in 1964.
Shinkansen 0 Series, image via Wikipedia
This cooperation led to many advantages but most significant is the fact that the Japanese trains are by far the most reliable trains in the world. In 2007, compared to the reliability of the French TGV trains, the Shinkansen trains scored 60 times better…
2. The Competition between Railway Companies
Nippon Railway, the first private railway company in Japan was founded in 1881. Today there are 16 major private railways in Japan, most of them competing against the Japan Railways Group which includes 6 passenger operating companies, separated by region.
The competition between the Japanese railway companies is still fierce, there are many routes serviced by at least two operators and we can easily observe the efforts to reduce travel times.
A good example is the line between Tokyo and Narita Airport, serviced now by JR’s “Narita Express” (55 minutes to Tokyo Station) and by Keisei “Skyliner” Limited Express (60 minutes to Ueno Station).
Since “Narita Express” currently has a slight advantage (more expensive but better time and serves directly more major train stations), Keisei invested in the Narita Rapid Railway, which will open in July 2010 and will be 15 minutes faster than Narita Express…
Also, to attract passengers, the railway companies resorted to methods not directly related to transportation. For example, since the 1920s, some of them started to build department stores directly linked to their lines terminus stations.
Seibu and Tobu Department Stores in Ikebukuro Station
The Department Stores founded by Tobu, Tokyu, Odakyu and Seibu are famous today, some of them with branches outside Japan.
3. The Railway Technology
Since the 1990s, the commuter Japanese trains are built with the objective of low-cost and minimal lifespan (approx. 15 years), the operators preferring to replace rather than rebuilt them when life-expired.
This policy lead to a large variety of series, with frequent improvements. You can see, for example, the variants of the 209 series, used by JR East.
Japan Rail EMU 209 Series, images via Wikipedia
Another remarkable aspect is the effort to insure interoperability between companies even if, in many cases, there are incompatibilities between technologies and equipment, like train radio or automatic train stop systems.
Tokyo Metro Hanzomon train operating on the Tobu Isesaki Line
But as a passenger, you can often benefit from using a train operating on metro lines, thus again reducing the travel time…
Odakyu 60000 Series MSE
For example, the Odakyu 60000 series MSE was the first limited express train with reserved seats built to operate through a subway, the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line.
4. The Diversity of Express Services
Most railways in the world have several variations of fast/semi-fast/slow services. However, in Japan there are impressive lists of Express services, the champion being the West Japan Railway Company, with 13 different Express services!
In the Shinjuku Station, serviced by 12 lines operated by 5 companies, we can count 15 services: Special Express, Semi Special Express, Rapid Express, Express, Tama Express, Semi Express, Section Semi Express, Commuter Special Rapid, Chūō Special Rapid, Oume Special Rapid, Special Rapid, Commuter Rapid, Rapid, Liner and Local.
Spacia, a Limited Express of the Tobu company
This large variety is not limited to the big JR Companies, it can also be observed on the private railways. When I visited Nikko, I used the Tōbu Isesaki Line where there are no less than 8 services: Local, Section Semi-Express, Semi-Express, Section Express, Express, Rapid, Section Rapid, and Limited Express.
Even when talking about Shinkansen, there are multiple choices of services. On the Tokaido Shinkansen line there are 3 types of trains: Nozomi (the fastest, going from Tokyo to Osaka in 2 hours, 26 minutes), Hikari (approx. 3 hours), and Kodama (the slowest, approx. 4 hours).
Shinkansen 200, E2, E4, E1 Series, image via Wikipedia
5. The Complex Fare Tables
With such a complex system of services, how about the tickets?
Generally, in Japan, the fare varies by distance and to this you must add several types of surcharges for express or for seats. Also, pricing can vary based on the time of the day (peak or off-peak hours)…
Buying a ticket on Japanese trains seems like a nightmare for the first time tourist, and I do have a funny story about how, in Tokyo Station, wanting to go to Kanda (just one stop away), I mistakenly bought a ticket to… the Haneda Airport! :D
Ticket vending machines on the Omori JR Station
However, studying the complicated fare tables to buy a fare ticket is not really necessary, since generally you can start the journey with the cheapest ticket and you can pay the rest at the exit station at the Fare Adjustment machines, or you can buy a stored-value card like Suica (which I strongly recommend).
Ticket fares in Akihabara Station: not so complex as it seems
6. The Punctuality
The punctuality of the Japanese trains is a legend since long time ago. In 2003, the average delay per train on the Tokaido Shinkansen was 6 seconds! Not impressed? Add to this the fact that during rush-hours, the Shinkansen trains are departing from Tokyo one at every 3 minutes!
And this astonishing performance is not limited to Shinkansen services. All trains, even the slower Local services follow strict timetables.
Why? The reason is that in Japan passengers are depending on this perfect punctuality to commute to and from work on time.
Most stations have been designed so that the trains meet on both sides of the same platform to allow people to transfer between Express and Local trains running on the same line.
And because of the tightness of the schedule, even a small delay of a Local train will cause a delay on the connecting Express train and will trigger a cascade of delays through the timetable.
Sometimes, this kind of synchronization works even with trains from other companies…
The Chuo Rapid (orange) at the same platform with the Chuo-Subu Local (yellow) at Ochanomizu Station
7. The Economics and Profitability
Over the last decades, the railways all over the world were confronted with a steady decrease in revenue, many railways are dependent of government aids and, for most of them, the goal of operational self-sufficiency is an objective that cannot be attained.
However, in Japan, even with the current economic downturn, East Japan Railway forecasts a full-year net profit of over 130 billion yen.
How is this possible? The fact is that in Japan, the relative share of railroads in total passenger traffic is still, by far, the largest in the developed countries.
On the other hand, considering all these performances, it’s no surprise that people prefer trains…
Of course not everything is well and good. There are also negative aspects, like the well known groping crimes that determined railway companies to introduce women-only cars.
There is also criticism to the too strictly enforced punctuality, which is blamed as a cause for the terrible rail crash from Amagasaki (in 2005) which killed 106 and injured 555 passengers.The subject of Japanese trains is vast and fascinating not only for the railway enthusiasts, and for good reason, is a subject of national pride for the Japanese people.