Published by Railfuture
Railwatch is the quarterly magazine of Railfuture, which is free to members.
Railwatch 076 - July 1998
Comfort, speed and service
Letter from Japan by Chris Packham
Think of Japanese railways and three images come to mind, bullet trains, clockwork punctuality and white-gloved staff squeezing commuters into the last available space.
In fact the people pushers are not a common sight, but overcrowding is a way of life in the Tokyo and Osaka conurbations.
Trains are the life blood of these areas and are full every day from early morning to late at night. They are frequent and punctual but not comfortable.
Most have a Tube-style ambience with bench seats and few or no toilets. They are used on journeys of up to two hours during which passengers may have to stand for over an hour.
On main lines you can beat the crush - at a price - by using Limited expresses which are reservation only and twice as expensive as local trains.
Tickets are bought from machines, the fare being found from a route map. You can buy a low-value ticket and pay the balance of the cost at your destination. In that case, you either put the extra money in a fare adjustment machine or pay the inspector at the barrier. Tickets are not checked on local trains but you must have one to get through the automatic barriers.
Transfer tickets to other railway companies can be bought from ticket machines or train conductors for many, but not all, journeys.
Fares on the JR companies - privatised from the old Japanese national railways in the 1980s - are higher than those of other operators, and are about the same as in Britain.
The table below shows the options I have when I go to Tokyo. The Odakyu Limited Express offers the best balance of cost, comfort and speed, with reclining seats, ample leg room and hostess refreshment service.
Most new rail construction is on the Tokyo underground where a new loop line is being built and three other lines are being extended. An impressive feature of the underground is that most lines carry direct trains from surface lines at one or both ends - CrossRail style.
Several companies are adding extra tracks where possible and remodelling junctions to increase speed and capacity. The railways and Tokyo local government aim to offer commuters enough room to read a newspaper at rush hour.
The aim is very ambitious, if not impossible. Tokyo commuters will have to make do with their slim paperbacks, comic books and Walkmans for the foreseeable future.
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