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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wayfinding

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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

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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.

Why can’t we get excited about high speed rail?

I can’t think of anyone (myself included) who has come back from a trip to Germany, France or Italy and hasn’t been astounded by the remarkable speed, convenience and affordability of those countries’ rail networks. In particular their high speed train networks, which support train travel between 150 and approx. 220 mph, are true feats of engineering that power intercity commerce and connection. In the last 10 years, China has built more High Speed Rail (HSR) track than the combined length of every other HSR system in the world and carries nearly 1 billion people every year. Japan is home to the Tokaido Shinkansen, the busiest single stretch of HSR in the world (and a topic of a future blog post following my November trip to Tokyo and Kyoto).

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Frecciarossa 1000 high speed train in Italy, which operates at 186 mph

In America however we settle for slow, meandering and expensive train service, even along the North East Corridor (NEC), which connects the cities of the BOSWASH megalopolis, home to over 50 million people. The NEC is, relative to train service in the rest of the country, a success. It turns a profit and carries more Amtrak riders by far than any other route. But, no one is exactly excited about HSR in America. I’m here to tell you why you should be, why other transportation fads aren’t worth the coverage they’re given and provide a little background on historical attitudes towards rail travel in this country.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, railroads like the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crisscrossed the United States. Thousands of miles of track were laid carrying passengers between destinations as distant as Chicago and Los Angeles. Car and air travel began eating into rail passenger numbers in the first half of the 20th Century and by the second half, passenger rail travel of every iteration was thrown into steep decline. Long distance trains could not come close to matching the speed of air travel and following the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, shorter trips were increasingly taken by private automobile. By 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak, took over most intercity rail travel in the United States as air and car travel continued to grow and flourish.

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Amtrak diesel train pulls into Saratoga Springs, NY station

Over the same period that passenger rail in the United States floundered, Japan, France, Italy and Germany were putting HSR lines into service connecting the city centers of Tokyo to Osaka, Paris to Lyon, Milan to Rome and Frankfurt to Munich. While America doubled down on highways and cars, airplanes and airports, these countries were investing in fast, safe and efficient HSR, in spite of the growth of car and air travel in those countries too. In Italy, where I studied abroad for 5 months in 2012, trips between Bologna and Milan cost as much as a significantly slower and less comfortable bus trip between New York and Boston. The difference in experience is so broad it defies logic why for a trip of a similar distance anyone would settle for a bus or Amtrak regional train (at a similar price point).

A train that makes the trip from New York to Washington DC in 90 minutes with a decent snack car and room to move around that skips the trip to the airport or commuter traffic is something to be excited about, especially because the technology to do so has been on display across the world for half a century. If given the choice of a bus or a train (irrespective of cost), even the Northeast Regional as opposed to the “high speed” Acela, the comfort of the latter wins every time. And yet, we continue settling for traffic jams, decreasing aircraft leg room and on Amtrak, slower-than-a-car speeds on busy routes that hardly justify steep ticket prices.

Many in America are getting excited about new, futuristic transportation options like Elon Musk’s Hyper-Loop, which touts speeds faster than an airplane, or for shorter trips, self-driving cars. Those technologies however face myriad technological and regulatory hurdles and offer false hope of what transportation of tomorrow could look like. This is all not to say that HSR in America can solve every intercity transportation puzzle; trips over 500 miles would likely continue to be beaten by airlines. But, for trips around 300 miles between dense (and relatively dense) urban cores like New York and Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles or Dallas and Houston, there is no better answer than HSR, which relies on technology almost as old as the Interstate Highway Act.

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Virgin-branded 16 seater hyper loop

To bring true HSR to America will be an incredible task matched only by its incredible cost. Upgrading just the NEC to accommodate average speeds of 125-150 mph will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. On Amtrak’s website, the current list of NEC projects, most just needed to keep the system operating in its current form, is staggering. The price tag of the Gateway Project alone has been estimated at $30 billion, to say nothing of a current political climate that is inhospitable at best.

Indeed, movement on true HSR for the NEC will go absolutely nowhere without serious excitement and support. Though trains may not be sexy or capture the imagination like the Hyperloop, it is the proven, possible, most energy efficient and best way to connect our major cities. Major steps are being taken in California to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles and even in Texas, to connect Dallas to Houston on the Texas Central Railway using Japanese HSR technology. If successful, though in their infancy today, these projects could provide a road map, or rather a train map to other HSR systems across the country.