This is a guest post from reader Malcolm M and follows on from his earlier post here.
While transport public transport authorities in the English-speaking world pattern themselves on the successes (and failures) of British policies, perhaps a better model would be look to Japan, particularly in getting the little things right. Why?
- Japan is a much larger market, with an annual rail ridership of 7.6 billion compared with a mere 1.7 billion in Britain.
- In Japan’s privatisation model the rail operator owns the land, tracks and trains in perpetuity, and can therefore make much longer-term investments than a British rail operator who only has a short-term operating contract.
- Japan has a strong culture of service, but in the context of delivering a commercial return on the assets.
Here are some of the little things I noticed on a holiday in Japan.
Excellent signage and amenities within stations, such as shops, toilets and luggage lockers. Over 200 stations in Tokyo now have free wifi (and by the end of this year all the bullet trains will have free in-carriage wifi for their entire route length). All the stations we visited had well-maintained toilets within the paid area, from this station (Shinjuku, the world’s busiest at 3.64 m passengers per day), to unmanned rural stations. All the toilets appeared to have been refurbished within the last 5 years, all had bidets and some had pre-warmed toilet seats.
Platform screen doors at the busiest stations. This is an investment that increases safety and reliability.
Not seen here is that temperature and humidity conditions are comfortable in Japan’s subway stations, unlike systems such as London, Paris and Montreal that can be stiflingly hot during summer. Tokyo has large split system air conditioners to remove heat from the stations and train tunnels. Another alternative is full height platform screen doors, such as in Singapore, so the platform area can be fully air-conditioned.
Queuing marks on platforms to speed up dwell times. Japanese train drivers have learnt to stop their trains within about 10 cm of a mark on the platform, so the train doors are lined up with the queuing areas and platform screen doors (if installed). (Perth uses something similar of yellow “Keep clear” markings on the platform that line up with the train doors so there is a clear space for alighting passengers).
Nearly all stations are stations are gated, and for us the most convenient means of paying was the Pasmo stored-value card, which can now be used on nearly all the trains and buses throughout Japan. Somehow neither New Zealand nor Australia have achieved nationally accepted stored-value cards despite much smaller populations.
There are wayfinding maps and timetables within subway stations, and up-to-date local area maps at street level. We saw these consulted frequently even though similar information is now available on phones.
Multiple entrances for subway stations, which are all numbered and shown on a station wayfinding map. This relatively minor subway station in Sapporo has one lift and 6 entrances with stairs, which no doubt assist with mobility during the heavy snowfalls. Japan’s busiest station (Shinjuku in Tokyo) has over 200 entrances.
Escalators were all maintained to a high standard, and of the many escalators we encountered we only saw 2 out of service. Nearly all were branded Mitsibushi. (Melbourne’s escalator maintenance is an example not to follow. When an escalator at Southern Cross Station was out of service for an extended period trains sometimes had to bypass the station because of platform crowding.) Advertisers use banner ads such as these within stations and hanging from the ceilings of subway trains, but none were backlit and no advertising had sound. Tokyo’s peak hour is surprisingly quiet with only the sounds of footsteps, trains, station chimes and announcements, which no doubt contributes to lower stress levels. There is virtually no road traffic noise because there’s hardly any traffic.
Many train stations have safe bicycle storage, but safe storage is easy to provide in Japan because there is virtually no petty thieving, nor vandalism, nor graffiti. These bicycles would only be protected by a rear wheel lock. The country is so safe that high school students travel independently on trains and bicycles to school and weekend sporting commitments, and we never saw this age group being chauffeured to events in cars by parents.
Most rail stations have a forecourts, which at this station has been developed into a municipal bus terminal. Their co-location provides easy transfers, and both bus and trains use the same stored value cards.
Passenger information displays. Within subway trains there are animated screens above the doors showing the current and subsequent stations in Japanese and English. All trains we encountered throughout the country had very clear recorded announcements before each station in Japanese and English. The quality of sound reproduction and perfection of volume control is something that only the Japanese seem to master.
Express and local services. This notice with a train car depicts the operating pattern of the Tsukuba Express, which was so successful that the competing adjacent line emulated it. The Japanese have perfected the art of operating both express and stopping-all-stations services along a pair of tracks. At some stations the local service stops for 4 minutes on a turn-out track while the express train stops and passes. This train line provides residents of the satellite town of Tsukuba with a half-hourly semi-express service in off-peak hours into inner Tokyo that takes 45 minutes to cover the 58 km journey, whereas the fastest peak services take 52 minutes.
Rehearsed contingency plans. This notice in a Tokyo subway station shows their preparedness for contingencies, including inter-operator arrangements between competing rail systems. In addition to the risks faced by rail systems elsewhere in the world, Japan contends with risks of earthquakes and typhoons. Parts of the Tokyo subway system are below sea level, introducing additional risks. Bullet train drivers rehearse their emergency procedures monthly. How often do our public transport systems go into meltdown because of the lack of contingency planning, and staff don’t rehearse the contingency actions often enough?
Trams have advertising but it doesn’t cover the windows, so passengers can see out. Better not to look to Melbourne’s model of wraps that cover the windows making it difficult for passengers to see out. Tram are quite rare in Japan now because the busier tram routes have been replaced with municipal subways.
Japan’s attention to detail extends to buses too. This bus stop shelter in Hokkaido protects passengers (most likely school children) from the cold westerly winter winds and heavy snowfalls. It has a door facing east, into the lee of these winds. How many bus stops does New Zealand have in exposed locations with minimal shelter? Photo credit: Google Earth
How can we in the English-speaking world tap into the immense experience of the Japanese? It would be great for our operating contracts to be benchmarked against standards that are regularly achieved in Japan. While we have accepted the model of contracting services to a private sector operator, the political right still sometimes claim that it will bring innovation and investment. Experience from Britain suggests the only innovation is for investments with a short payback period, such as fare structures. Perhaps innovation instead needs to be additional to the base operating contract as separately contracted services, and looking to examples of innovation in vertically integrated public transport agencies such as in Japan.
Japan 7.6 billion annual ridership https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Japan
UK 1.7 billion ridership https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Great_Britain