Monday, January 31, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 8. The Railways

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan. For your comfort, posted in parts. Far too long as a single list.

    Okay, given, they are some of the best in the world, (from what I've seen) but this bears saying. Railways everywhere could improve, a lot. Japan has the least excuse because they are so renouned for the speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of their railways. How it still remains possible to transport two people in their own vehicle at a lower cost and higher speed than transporting a trainful of people over the same distance remains a mystery to me. If I want to get ten people from point A to point B, even if the trains run along the same route as the people do, even in Japan, it will cost me about two people's train fare to pile everyone into two cars and drive.
    That brings to mind one of the simplest things that could be done to make train travel more popular - perhaps not in Japan, where almost everyone rides the train alone - but everywhere. Introduce discounts for smaller groups. If I want to drive from point A to point B, it costs me almost exactly the same amount to transport one person as it does to transport five. If I want to transport five people from point A to point B by train, it costs me exactly five times as much. Certainly, the cost decreases very little less for the train company to transport five individuals than one group of five - but wouldn't it make more sense for them to compete with cars, if they want the business? Also, we must remember, it does cost them a little less - less time at the ticket machine, less time with a ticket-handler, and likely, less time at the station, since five moving as a group move more efficiently than five individuals. Also, and this is a major point, it costs them less in missed stops. Five as a group are less likely to miss a stop than one of the five individuals, especially with the incredible Japanese ability to sleep on the trains.
    Speaking of train companies, what exactly is the deal with separate train companies? They don't actually compete, because none of them run on the same tracks, except in a few exceptionally busy areas, and, frankly, they just get confusing. To fill the unaware in, there are five major train companies in Japan, JR, JR West, JR East, JR North and JR South. To make things more confusing, JR West handles trains mostly in the South, JR handles trains in the Tokyo area and betwen Tokyo and Kyoto, JR East handles trains in the North (All the way up to the tip of Japan). Where they all come together, in Tokyo station, five train handlers come together in one station, with very little guidance as to which goes where, and how to get to their respective ticket machines. In addition to this, there are innumerable local lines of both subway and above-ground trains, which often require exiting one station to walk across the street to another. In Kyoto, several subway stops are located about a block from the stops of local trains, which are located another block (and blocks in Kyoto are suprisingly long) from the bus stops.
    I suppose I was just disappointed, as I had been led to expect more. In Japan, I paid about $14 per person to take a local train from Narita airport, about an hour and a half ride, to Tokyo station. There, the train was packed. In Italy, I paid about $8.50 per person to take a ride of the same distance in an hour, from Pisa to Florence. There, the train was newer, nicer, and less crowded. In Japan, we paid $8 per person each way to take an fifty-minute train ride from the suburbs into the city. In Los Angeles, with its famously terrible public transport, I paid variously $11 per person for a (one day) round-trip ticket from the suburbs to the city. (A great convenience) in a much, much nicer train. In Kyoto and Tokyo, I paid something around $5 per person per trip to take a local train for single short (~20 minute) rides. For the same price, I could get a one-day pass on the "local trains" of LA, or a three-day pass on the local trains around Rome. For a country renouned for the efficiency of its local transit, Fail, Japan, Fail.


  1. "I hate trains!"

    "Don't be silly; you love trains."


    Anyway, I honestly have never comprehended the idea of trains being a modern solution to cheep, efficient, centralized, automated travel. They just aren't any of those things.

    I think it would be really fun to plan a city specifically to devise some form of built in automated transportation system that would be all the above. Imagine having some type of vehicle just built into your house/apartment/whatever that you could just step into and instantly be taken anywhere else in the city no hassle, and that would be automatically replaced by another vehicle as soon as you left. No need to have two or three cars, you have one, every time you need one. I'm certain that a few talented programmers and engineers wouldn't find it too hard to come up with something like that.

  2. Wow, I'm truly disappointed. I thought Japan had a good train system. =/

  3. @Abigail

    Disappointing indeed, but that's only my experience. Others have nearly gone faint around me about the same subject. I don't know what the difference is, other than that I'm not sure if those people have been training around anywhere else.

  4. @Daniel

    It seems to me, speaking of course as an outsider, that trains could be everything they should be, if they were only done right, and with the proper investment, and the proper environment. In your current location, if I don't miss my surmise, that obviously wouldn't work so well, things being so very spread out.
    In the greater LA Area, I found the train/light rail service to be extremely efficient and cheap. Sure, it didn't run quite as late as I would like, but nothing around there did. For $11 I could buy a ticket that would take me from Newhall to Los Angeles (I think it's up to $14 now, and it's still a deal) and back, and give me unlimited access to LA's metro bus and rail services for the day, and then take me back at the end of the day, all with one ticket. The light rail always came within fifteen minute intervals, and was easy to figure out, and got me just about anywhere I wanted to go. If I wanted to go bus, I could have gone further faster, but I enjoyed the walking. All that, and I didn't have to pay for gas, I didn't have to pay for parking, I didn't have to worry about a car or try to drive around Los Angeles, which I would prefer not to do anyway. My only complaints were that they didn't run very late (sadly, I do think they could make a lot of money - the rail runs right past Doger stadium and Staples Center. Imagine how many people would ride that train, and miss the traffic, parking, etc.) and that they didn't run out to LAX - but they do have free shuttle busses from Union Station, and are actually currently building that extension. Oh - and the sparse weekend service could be an annoyance, but that I found forgivable, especially since with proper pre-planning, I could still do an 8-10 run..
    That said, I was pretty darn happy with it the few times Grace and I did use it. I wish I would have discovered it earlier, I would have made more trips down to LA. I could catch a 7:00 train, be in LA by 8:00, enjoy Union Station (one of my favorite train stations), hop on the bus for Canters for breakfast, then take the bus back to exposition park, enjoy the rose garden, natural history museum, whatever else, be back at Little Tokyo for lunch at Daikokuya by 12:00, then be off for an afternoon at the Huntington or Norton Simon, within a half hour by rail away in Pasidena (+ a little walking) and then be back for dinner in Chinatown, with time to walk around a little, or catch a quick drink at the Rotating bar in the Westin before a 10:00 train carried me back to Newhall by 11:00. All that travel, for $11. Like I said, worked plenty well for me.

    Continued in next post

  5. All that - and, here's the curious part to me, the Federal government spends .5 million on rail subsidies each year. In contrast, the Federal government alone (not counting municipal, county and state spending) spends 500 million a year on roads. Imagine what the US train system could be with a 1000 times increase in investment. I admit, I'm curious as to what the US would be like if Eisenhower had decided to spend excess war funds on Rail rather than Roads.
    If Keuroac had written at all, he would have written "On the Rail". McDonalds would be a train car service. Drive-in-movies would be movies shown in a train car, or along sections of rail line.
    I might even go so far at the moment, in my current nostalgia for Rail, as to say that the problem is that Railways can make a profit - something Roads and Airlines cannot seem to do without generous Federal subsidies. So, because rail is more efficient, government abandons rail to the private companies, and instead does something which needs the subsidies.
    Again, I'm not an expert, and not to get too political, but if you think about it, it also benefits the US government to build roads, rather than run train companies. Roads employ gas stations, car manufacturers, car repair shops, all positions subject to income tax (and various other taxes) by the US government. If we think about the subsystems, we realize that US investment in roads more than pays (in income taxes) for everything it puts out. Individual truck drivers (rather than a much smaller group of train engineers), oil drillers, metalworking manufacturers, car designers, safety testers, and everything else. If you think about it, governments (at least those which run on income taxes) have a vested interest in promoting inefficient buisnesses and economic models, because buisnesses that employ more employees pay more to the government.

    That's why cars seem so efficient to you - because they've been so heavily subsidized.

    At least, that's the argument I currently feel like making. I reserve the right not to stick to it.