No excuses

I’ve lived in Japan for nearly three years now and I’m still in awe about their fantastic train service. For someone who lived in England for 14 years, the Japanese trains are bloody amazing!

When I move back to England, one of the things I will miss even more than the irresistible Japanese food (that has over the past 3 years added about 10kg on my waist) is the stress-free bang-on-time train service that I have been using to commute to work every weekday and to travel near and far around Japan during weekends.

You see, England is country whose train service can hardly be referred to as ‘bloody amazing’ and thus, I will have to soon again get used to all sorts of excuses as to why I won’t be able to trust that my train will be on my platform when it should.

This might be a bit mean to the English government (that seems reluctant to make any investment whose benefits last beyond their term in office) and to English train companies (whose only aim is to make profit for their shareholders regardless of how appalling a service they provide their passengers in the process) but I can’t resist pointing out that the English train operators’ three typical excuses for delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains seem rather moot in comparison to the conditions in Japan. They appear to be the following:

1. Weather and natural disasters

Japan has a multitude of additional and frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Regardless of these, Japanese train operators manage to provide a fantastic service. For instance, the average delay annually of the Shinkansen, i.e. the bullet train is between 20-50 seconds depending on the year (this includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, like earthquakes!).

In comparison, in England, trains are cancelled as there are ‘leaves on the tracks’.

2. The number of people

English train operators often defend their poor service by saying that the volume of people in modern day England does not reflect the capacity of its Victorian infrastructure. Namely, the platforms are too short for longer trains whose use would enable less overcrowded trains. I’m guessing the company/government decision-makers are not stupid, and thus they are aware that one could (a) modernise the platforms to reflect the needs of the modern day or (b) run a more frequent train service without extending the platforms. However, extra trains and longer platforms mean investment, more man-hours and higher fuel costs, all of which result in less profits, so the government and the companies are as eager to change the platforms or add extra services as your stingy auntie is to turn the heating up in the winter.

About 120 million people live in Japan. This is roughly twice as many as in England. Regardless of this huge number of people, the commute to work in Japan is generally relatively stress-free. If you do not fit onto the train you were expecting to take, you simply join the queue on the platform, and take the following train, which is likely to arrive a couple of minutes later. Therefore, not fitting onto the overcrowded train creates a delay on average of about 2 minutes.

The train and tube connections between different lines are unbelievably well thought through and executed. As your first train pulls in to the platform, your connection is usually already there waiting for you, or it will arrive within 30 seconds. So, all you need to do is basically just walk out of your first train and walk into your connection on the other side of the platform before it leaves 30 seconds later. It’s like magic! I assume English train companies’ intention is to provide something similar, but they haven’t quite managed to hone the operations to the point where passengers can enjoy their connection waiting for them at the platform instead of it arriving 45 minutes later (if even then).

3. Old equipment

Maybe a valid point is the functionality of the train company’s equipment. We get to the importance of investment here again, but let’s assume that one had to make do with pretty old trains. Would this be a valid reason to let your train service perform like a pensioner with a heart problem using a zimmer frame?

Well, in Japan it’s not. In Japan they have their high end bullet trains (would you not agree with me that they look like platypuses, see photo below) and they are investing now in the Maglev, the super fast magnetically levitating bullet train.

 

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Platypus

 

But in addition to these super fast, super reliable long distance trains, local Japanese train companies (many of which are privately owned), such as the one I have been using for the past three years to commute to work and back, use less sophisticated technology (see photos below).

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What I love about the aboves photo, and what to me gives an indication of the rigour and determination that the train companies and staff have about their schedule is the old-fashioned pocket watch on the dashboard. Every time the train stops, the driver checks the watch to make sure the train leaves on time. I suppose my point with the picture is that: good train service is not just about the equipment.

And ass I pointed out above, I think it’s not about the weather or the number of passengers either.

So what is it about?

I think it’s about attitude. I think it’s as simple as that. If train operators wanted to put passenger satisfaction first and provide good service, they would simply adjust to the needs of the modern society and to current passenger numbers, even if it meant a little less money for themselves/their shareholders.

But in a country with a long history of dog-eat-dog competition, where can we find the train operators or their decision makers that are not only concerned about money?

 

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One more point relevant to trains, but from a slighlty different perspective: Even though the train operators don’t care about their passengers very much in England, other passengers on the train do (only occasionally you are unlucky enough to encounter a person whose BMW was broken down and they’ve had to take the train. These are the people who behave on the train platform like their time is more valuable than everyone else’s). In England, if for instance an elderly person or a pregnant lady is on the train, you can be sure that someone will give their seat to these people. Japanese people on the other hand rarely offer their seat to anyone even if it was obvious that the other person needed the seat more than they did (see photo below of me carrying my sleeping 4-year old for a 40 minute journey from Kyoto to Osaka).

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Is that a car or a toaster?

 

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We don’t have a car in Japan. We live in the centre of Osaka, which means that the furthest we need to walk to reach essential places like the closest Korean BBQ, Western wine shop, or Pablo’s bakery is about 300 m.

Also, public transport in Japan is amazing. The tube and trains run like Haile Gebrselassie – fast and reliably. For example, the Shinkansen (the Japanese bullet trains) carry about 350 million passengers annually but the systems’ performance record is out of this world (at least in comparison to the UK). In the past 50 years, the average delay (including delays due to natural disasters) is 36 seconds.

The Shinkansen is not an exception. The tubes that I have taken for the past 14 months to work and to my son’s school have stretches that are amongst the busiest in Japan. Yet those tubes are practically never late.

These Japanese train/tube operator stats are as embarrassing for the British train operators as you realizing that you accidentally walked all the way to the subway carrying a full bin bag which you had meant to dump at your building’s communal waste disposal room. For example,  the service from our hometown, Brighton, to London has been late every day for a year (link to a Metro article). Japan’s punctuality stats demonstrate that trains can run on time even in extremely heavily populated areas with frequent natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

A natural disaster for Network Rail (back in the UK) is a couple of flakes of snow or some leaves on the track, and these justify the cancellation or delay of pretty much the whole network.

Finland is not too bad in terms of train punctuality or coping with ‘natural disasters’ such as a bit of snow or some leaves. However, it’s easy to be on time when the tube ‘network’ in the capital city, Helsinki, looks like this.

Helsinki Tube Map

Helsinki Tube Map

 

Just in case some of you Finns reading this blog post are not aware of what tube maps in big cities look like please find below Osaka’s tube map.

Osaka tube map

Osaka tube map

 

In any case, due to the location of our apartment and the brilliance of Japanese public transport we feel we don’t really need a car. And given the carbon footprint we are stomping on the atmosphere with our frequent flying back and forth between the UK and Japan, us not to having a car here is probably the least we can do for the environment.

And to be honest, I am not that keen on the cars that many people have here. You see, the toasters illustrated in the photo below (and at the top of the page) are actually not toasters, they are Japanese cars!

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I can but assume that the designer of the car above previously worked for a kitchen appliance company like Kenwood (designing toasters, microwave ovens and table top grills), and even though he is now working as a designer of Asian cars, he still longs for the days he was at Kenwood.

By the way, the reason why I used the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to the designer of the cars above is not because I think car designers are necessarily men, but because I think that no woman could have designed such unattractive cars. I feel many men value functionality over aesthetics(other than when they are looking for a partner) – I’m sure most of them wouldn’t care if they drove to the supermarket, squash court or work in a tank or a golf cart as long as (a) it gets them there and (b) it is fast.

On the topic of cars, the colour of cars in Japan is like the Japanese salarymans’ attire. Spotting anything other than black or white is unusual. A silver car (or a grey suit) is a statement in Japan. And if you drive a maroon or metallic blue car, let alone a red Merc this probably means that you are a foreigner, the reason being that people in Japan generally view individuality as a negative thing (illustrated by the Japanese proverb – ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’). Consequently, a lime green or pink car would fit in to a Japanese city as well as Tom Hunt would fit in to a feminist movement’s pro-science conference – as anything other than bait for an angry mob, that is.

Photos below illustrate that black and white cars are the name of the game in Japan.

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