Rail Transportation in Japan

I recently got back from nine days in Japan, spent mostly in and around Tokyo and Kyoto. Over the course of my stay I traveled half a dozen times on the Shinkansen bullet train and took approximately 40 trips on various subways and commuter rail lines. Here, I want to share my experiences and observations of rail travel in Japan and in some cases offer comparisons to and suggestions for the New York City Subway, New York commuter rail and Amtrak. All rail lines I took in Japan were superlatively clean, reliable, frequent and comfortable. Many if not all of these descriptors elude American rail transportation services on any given day.

metro map
Tokyo Subway Map

Overview: Tokyo

The Tokyo Subway system, a combination of the Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro, is the busiest in the world carrying over 3 billion riders annually. For comparison, the NYC Subway carries around 1.7 billion. Excluded from this figure is ridership on Japan Railways lines such as the Yamanote Line, which circles central Tokyo and the Chuo Line, which extends from the central station far into the suburbs. All together they form a huge public transportation network, with hundreds of interchanges and options.

The first thing I noticed when riding the Yamanote Line the day I arrived was the smoothness of the ride. In America, rail passengers can expect to be bumped and jostled by uneven roadbeds no matter where they are. In Tokyo however, trains glide over their tracks as if disconnected from the ground. The Yamanote Line’s route is similar to a subway, staying only within metro Tokyo, but operates more like a commuter line with faster speeds, achieved in part by greater distances between stations. Crowded Yamanote Line trains arrive in both directions at a 60-90 second headway, intervals that no American transit system can successfully achieve.

The Tokyo subway arrives at similar headways to the Yamanote Line, but operates at slower speeds. In many cases stations are much closer together and curves are tighter as trains wind beneath the labyrinth of city streets above. We were generally able to find seats on the subway and luckily never had to be shoved into a train car by platform attendants.

Shinkansen N700 series at Kyoto Station

Overview: Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

The Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen, which connects the four largest cities in Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka) is the busiest high speed rail line in the world. While we waited for our return train to Tokyo from Kyoto, I watched as 16-car trains departed the station exactly on time every fiveish minutes in both directions. The ride quality of the Shinkansen, like the trains in Tokyo, is shockingly smooth. The train hums and glides, rather than shaking and rattling, as it accelerates soon after departure to a top speed of 200 mph. The Shinkansen is a true feat of engineering with no near equivalent in the United States and only a few international peers. (See my previous post about high speed rail and America’s shortcomings compared with the likes of Japan, France and Germany here).

One of the keys to its speed, safety and capacity is that the entire Tokaido Sanyo line runs completely separate from other slower rail services. In the United States, Acela high speed services share track with the likes of slower commuter trains, freight trains and other Amtrak trains. This is not only dangerous but also disallows the Acela from reaching its top speed for any sustained period. The Shinkansen only runs on track with trains that operate at the same speeds, allowing them to operate only minutes apart.

In Japan local trains are kept separate from Shinkansen tracks, elevated to the right

Another important aspect of Shinkansen infrastructure is the straightness of its track. The faster, heavier and longer a train is, the wider the radius of a curve must be for it to sustain its speed. In the U.S. an Amtrak train careened off of a curve outside of Philadelphia that was designed for only 50 mph. In Japan, Shinkansen trains maintain their top speed around turns because the radius is exceedingly forgiving.


A dynamic display on the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line shows current car number and its relation to exits at the next station

One of the many strengths of the subway, commuter and intercity rail lines in Japan is thoughtful and abundant signage. With the exception of one trip on the Fukutoshin Line of the Tokyo Metro that overshot our intended stop by one, we were never lost in our rail travels. All signs either flip between Japanese and English or show both at once. Even when signs showed Japanese, color coding by line and service often provided enough information to get by. In the New York City Subway, there is an increasing obsession with hi-tech signage and dynamic displays, which manifests itself in, among other projects, Andrew Cuomo’s Enhanced Station Initiative. While many of the displays in Japan were dynamic, static signs in stations which pointed commuters to a specific track based on line maps of the routes proved to be the most useful guides. In the NYC Subway it can be difficult to decipher how a train will actually operate at any given time based on the written descriptions found posted at the edges of platforms. In Japan, even when various skip stop and local services operated from the same track, train type and what stops it would make were always clear both on the platform and onboard.

Stations and Accessibility

None of the Tokyo subway, Yamanote Line or Shinkansen stations I used were beautiful. There was little adornment, no art and no USB charging stations. However, what they lack in aesthetic treatments favored by Andrew Cuomo, they make up for in functionality. Stations did have wifi, but in the case of the Tokyo subway, trains arrived before I had time to connect; a good problem to have.

The NYC Subway is perhaps the least accessible rail system in the world for people with disabilities. The difficulties for disabled persons in New York continues to be well documented of late as they struggle to use a subway system with oft-broken elevators at only 23% of stations. Most of the rail stations I used in Tokyo and Kyoto had elevators along with other considerations for disabled persons that aren’t found in New York. Most stations benefit from 4-foot high platform screen doors, which prevent accidental customer falls onto the tracks. Most elevators, both in stations and in buildings throughout Japan, have a separate set of buttons that are closer to the floor so they can be accessed by people in wheelchairs. Further, sidewalks and floors in stations and throughout Tokyo and Kyoto are embedded with rubber rumble strips, like those found on crosswalk ramps in New York. These help visually or physically disabled persons find their way and prevent accidental movements into dangerous parts of the street or station.

Airport Connections

Airport terminals in Japan are better too

I flew into and out of Haneda International Airport, which is only 10 miles from central Tokyo. Right outside the international terminal is a station on the Tokyo Monorail, which takes riders directly to Hamamatsucho Station where transfer is available to the Yamanote Line among others. Narita Airport, though a significant 40 miles away from the center of the city, has three different express rail lines connecting it to different parts of Tokyo, which makes it feel much closer. These fast, frequent and simple rail connections to the Tokyo airports stand in stark contrast to the chore of reaching New York area airports. This was made unpleasantly apparent upon return to Newark Airport. Four Newark Air Trains arrived in the wrong direction before one headed our way showed up. We missed an NJ Transit train because of this. The next one (at 8pm on a Monday) did not arrive for another 22 minutes. Fittingly, the C train we got on at 34th Street – Penn Station for the last leg of our journey was a nearly 60-year old R32, which rattled and shook all the way back to Brooklyn.

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