In the UK, the train system is an embarrassment. In the US, from what I’ve heard, it’s non-existent. In the Japan, they show the whole world how its done.
In terms of public transport use by country, Japan is 3rd highest in the world, behind only China and India, who have the little advantage of having a population TEN TIMES BIGGER than Japan. And there is good reason for that: the public transport here is fast, cheap, punctual and widespread.
And in Japan, there is no doubt that trains rule the roost here, for which Japan is by far and away the biggest user. There are a staggering 10,000 passenger stations in Japan. Out of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, only 5 of them are located outside of Japan (And you have to get all the way down to #24 to find the first one).
But before we get onto a train, let’s take a virtual tour around a train station. In nearly all cases, a train station is at the heart of whatever community it serves, with most shops and services clustered around the station, then gradually falling away into suburbia as you move away from it – a sign of just how much Japan relies on its trains. In the busier train stations, an entire shopping mall can spill over the train station: you literally step out of the ticket gates and you are in a supermarket or clothing emporium. No kidding; more than once I have stopped by in a station to get a haircut. Like you do. In fact, you can pretty much make a sound judgement on the size and importance of the area you are in without even leaving the station. If there is no more than a ticket gate and exits, then you are probably in some backwater. If you step out and find yourself confronted with a DVD store and half a dozen Starbucks, then you’re downtown for sure.
And then there are the trains themselves. Despite what the man on the street might think, not all trains in Japan are like the bullet train, the Shinkansen (which I won’t cover here, that will need it’s very own post): in fact, very few of them are. Most neighborhood trains are simple, no-frills carriages, with chairs for sitting, a floor for standing, and…yeah, that’s it. Well, windows and doors I guess. Oh, and adverts. LOTS of adverts. Most of the time, you are lucky to even have access to a toilet. I guess this is what keeps cost down.
So you wait at your platform, at the marked areas where the doors will be (which – shock! – the trains actually stop at!) and board. From there your journey will be one of two experiences: either a quiet, spacious affair with a few folks snoozing and nodding around the carriage and the obligatory old guy with his feet up on the chairs, reading a book and seemingly all of his worldly possessions sprawled everywhere; or the sardine-can commuter affair, your face pressed up against the window so tight you swear it’ll shatter. THIS is the time when Japan’s status as the heaviest users of trains in the world is truly evident. Empty seats are like golddust, and everyone seems to have called everyone the night before to check they were all wearing the exact same black suit and white shirt. This is where you see the legendary passenger-pushers: employees who push commuters onto the trains. Except, they don’t: if you’re envisaging some guy literally pushing people through the doors, then that isn’t what happens: what really happens is everyone boards and finds their own space of their own accord, then when the doors close, if some of them don’t close properly because of some bag or arse poking out, they come rushing in to tuck everything in so the doors can shut properly and get everyone on their way.
On a personal point, that is my daily commute, and yes, it really is that crazy. Every. Single. Day. But you learn some tricks of the trade, like the best places to stand to get a little more space, for example. And when you want to get off at your station, unless everyone else is getting off there too, you’re going to have to fight for it.
Despite this, I love the train system in Japan. They are frequent and reliable, with even a train running five minutes late is rare. But most of all, especially if you live in an urban area, they are a real alternative to driving. I don’t drive, and rely on trains to get around, along with a significant portion of the population. And that that has been working just fine for me so far.