Inside Japan’s Quest For ‘Flawless’ Public Transport

“… That the Transportation system in Japan is acknowledged as the best in the world… The excellent transport is also an instrument for attracting as many overseas tourists as possible to visit the Sakura country…”

Goes a research paper titled Transportation System in Japan: A Literature Study authored by Geradi Yudhistira, Muhammad Iqbal Firdaus, and Lira Agushinta.

Is the Japanese public transportation system really the best in the world? This article seeks to interrogate this claim and explain more about the Asian country’s PT system in detail.

Need For Speed

To achieve this goal, let’s start with a CNN feature published in October 2020 under the headline: Japan debuts new bullet train that can run during an earthquake.

The piece was published after The N700s, a bullet train that operates on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which connects Shin-Osaka Station and Tokyo Station entered into service in July 2020.

The N700S Shinkansen. The high-speed train runs on the  Tokaido and San'yō Shinkansen lines. It is operated by JR Central and JR West. {Image Source: Japan Rail Pass}
The N700S Shinkansen. The high-speed train runs on the  Tokaido and San’yō Shinkansen lines. It is operated by JR Central and JR West. {Image Source: Japan Rail Pass}

Ironically, The N700S which clocks up to 360 kilometres per hour but capped at 285 kilometres per hour is not even the fastest bullet train in Japan, that honour belongs to the Japanese Maglev (magnetic levitation) — which travels at a maximum speed of 505km/hr.

It was anticipated that The Japanese Maglev would be the fastest bullet train in the world when construction began in 2014 but the top spot was swiftly taken by the Chinese Maglev which is now The World’s Fastest Train with the ability to clock speeds of 600 kilometres per hour (373 miles per hour).

The project is yet to be completed by the time of publishing this article for various reasons such as environmental concerns and pandemic woes.

Back to our point of discussion: Is Japanese public transport acknowledged as the best in the world as claimed in the report by Geradi Yudhistira, Muhammad Iqbal Firdaus, and Lira Agushinta?

The Economist in 2014 described Japan as the world leader in high-speed trains.

Since then, China has aggressively developed high-speed trains of its own and is now considered the world leader in this particular field.

Japan has also done reasonably well as captured by a Bloomberg feature titled: China and Japan Race to Dominate the Future of High-Speed Rail.

Japan’s public transport system as a whole is efficient and reliable and among the very best in the world.

What evidence exists to support this argument?

Another research paper published by Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering dubbed: Sustainable Transit: Japan vs. United States.

The report observes that the United States could learn a lot from Japan when it comes to providing sustainable and effective transit.

“They equip their extensive network of trains and monorails with some of the worlds’ finest technology and have privately-owned rail companies that invest in research and innovation. The Tokyo Transit system has mastered the elements of good transportation, creating a system that other forms of transportation are not able to compete with in terms of convenience and sustainability.”

The Japanese Maglev bullet train. It runs at 500 kilometres per hour and was the fastest of its kind before July 2021. {Image Source:  Japan Rail Pass}
The Japanese Maglev bullet train. It runs at 500 kilometres per hour and was the fastest of its kind before July 2021. {Image Source: Japan Rail Pass}

“Many of our transit systems struggle to meet the goals of good transit service, making private transportation the most desirable option to get around a metro area. Japan Railways (JR) East is constantly working to improve the sustainability, durability, and accessibility of their railways.”

With such context in mind, let’s take a wider look at Japanese public transport, shall we?

Privatization

It would be a disservice to mention Japanese public transport without properly having a look at the privatization of the now-defunct Japanese National Railways (JNR).

This topic is adequately tackled in a report published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in November 2019 dubbed: The Privatization of Japan Railways and Japan Post: Why, How and Now.

The report notes Japan’s move to privatize JNR in 1987 has reaped massive dividends for the country’s transport as reflected by the current quality of service, profitability, and diversification.

Privatization of the JNR was influenced by the UK’s Thatcher Revolution and was overseen by the then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone as a measure to respond to the burgeoning debt crisis at the time.

Public organizations such as the JNR were converted into joint-stock companies whose shares were floated to the public as the first step of the privatization journey.

The next steps would include the division of JNR into 8 Japan Railway (JR) companies tailored to serve different regions such as Japan Railway East and Japan Railway West. The companies also perform different functions.

Japan Railway East headquarters in Tokyo. The company is one of Japan Railway's 8 subsidiaries. {Image Source:  Wikipedia}
Japan Railway East headquarters in Tokyo. The company is one of Japan Railway’s 8 subsidiaries. {Image Source: Wikipedia}

The privatization and subsequent splitting of JNR to eight companies have been such a success that the individual companies have become exporters of their technology and operating systems.

Is it all about Rail?

There is no doubt that Japan is among the very best in the construction of rail and development of rail technology, therefore it goes without saying that it is normal for this particular mode of transport to dominate conversation whenever Japan is being talked about but there’s more to the country’s public transport.

Bus Transport

Unlike other countries where bus transport is a mainstay in cities, in Japan, the situation is a bit different.

In large cities, buses are a secondary means of transport, they supplement trains but that is not the same case in smaller cities and rural areas where buses are the most popular means of transport.

Buses are a secondary means of transport in large Japanese cities but are the primary mode of transport in small towns. {Image Source: Japan Guide}
Buses are a secondary means of transport in large Japanese cities but are the primary mode of transport in small towns. {Image Source: Japan Guide}

One downside of local buses in Japan is that they are not designed to be international-friendly.

The payment and boarding systems are tailor-made for locals on top of timetables, announcements, and signs all being in Japanese.

Away from local bus transport, Japan boasts of a wide range of long-distance highway buses which link different regions. Some highway buses travel at night.

Although highway buses cannot be compared to high-speed trains in terms of overall efficiency, highway buses tend to be economical and this is partly attributable to market conditions precipitated by the rise of bullet trains in the country.

A huge chunk of highway buses require advance seat reservations but it is extremely difficult for a foreigner to secure a spot.

Since the bus economy in Japan has already taken a hit from the rise of high-speed trains, a smarter way to manage this kind of transport is proving to be necessary. The smart way in question is the use of Big Data.

As reported by NHK-Japan, Masaru Yajima, a tech expert has cut a niche for himself using Big Data to revive loss-making bus routes in the country.

Masaru Yajima, a tech expert has cut a niche for himself using Big Data to revive loss-making bus routes in the country. {Image Source: NHK}
Masaru Yajima, a tech expert has cut a niche for himself using Big Data to revive loss-making bus routes in the country. {Image Source: NHK}

“GPS and sensors are used to track progress and passenger flow, and this big data is analyzed to optimize routes and departure times. Further innovations like waiting rooms and wholesale local produce at bus stops have helped to attract passengers beyond the typical user base. And this pioneering transport firm is now taking its successful template overseas.”

NHK Report

Tram Transport

Trams, which are referred to as romendensha in Japanese, were omnipresent in the Asian country’s cities and major towns from the early 20th century up to the 1960s.

The emergence of subways in the 1960s dealt a major blow to trams which started becoming less popular and eventually became an afterthought.

Following the 1960s, tramlines were ripped up as cars became the most dominant mode of transport.

Currently, Tokyo operates one tram line, the Toden Arikawa Line, which runs to Minowabashi Station from Waseda station.

Osaka, on the other hand, has kept the Hankai Uemachi Line intact. It runs from Tennoji to Sumiyoshi-Koen in the Southern part of the city.

However, these are pale reflections of the vast tram networks that once existed in these Japanese cities.

The Hiroshima Tram. Trams used to be a major force in Japanese transport. That glory has faded away. {Image Source: Japan Visitor}
The Hiroshima Tram. Trams used to be a major force in Japanese transport. That glory has faded away. {Image Source: Japan Visitor}

Some towns have gone the further notch of completely removing their tram lines. They include Nagoya (1974), Shizuoka (1974), and Gifu (2005).

A huge number of Japanese cities have kept their trams which now serve as tourist attractions. They include: Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Hiroshima.

Apart from tourism, keeping their trams has a nostalgic value for the cities in question.

High-Speed Trains

Shinkansen is the term used to refer to a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan.

As observed during the course of this article, Japan is big on bullet trains with the country’s government convinced that bullet trains represent the future.

The Japanese bullet trains run on exclusive tracks and only stop at major stations.

Japan Railways (JR) through its eight subsidiaries is responsible for operating the bullet trains which feature some of the fastest trains in the world that clock up to 320 kilometres per hour.

The initial idea behind the bullet trains was to connect rural and distant regions to the country’s capital Tokyo to accelerate economic growth.

In 2014, Japan decided to up its bullet train game- announcing that it was planning to introduce the Japanese Maglev which until July 2021 was a shoo-in to become the fastest train in the world on the ability to run 500 kilometres per hour and 603 kilometres per hour when pushed to the limit.

The Japanese Maglev. The bullet train was the fastest of its kind in the world until earlier this year. {Image Source: The Verge}
The Japanese Maglev. The bullet train was the fastest of its kind in the world until earlier this year. {Image Source: The Verge}

Maglev trains operate on the (magnetic repulsion between the vehicles and track) principle. The word maglev is a combination of two half words: magnetic and levitation.

That prestige was not to be after China claimed that prize when it launched its own Maglev which moves at 600 kilometres per hour.

A media report published by the Japan Times in August 2020, gave insight into why Japan is so keen on being the very best in railway technology.

The report noted, “Behind the government’s push for the Maglev initiative is its desire to establish a megalopolis that will give Japan a competitive edge over other countries that boast of so-called mega-regions”.

Some of the mega-regions in question include “BosWash” the considerably wealthy strip that stretches from Boston to Washington in the U.S and the Pearl River Delta in China, an industrial hub that brings together Hong Kong, Macau, and nine key cities in Guandong Province.

An explainer published by The Economist also gives perspective on why Japan believes so much in bullet train transport.

The article suggests that Japan is big on high-speed rails because;

  1. High Speed Rail represents modernity.
  2. Geography and political considerations: Although high-speed trains are not investments that will yield monetary returns in good time to be considered profitable, the Japanese government sees it important to link the few densely populated areas that majority of the 128 million Japanese citizens reside as a means to promote inclusivity and boost economic growth in the process.

Another important aspect about Japanese high-speed rail is that it has eaten into aviation market share and the two forms of public transport are currently locked in a battle for the same passengers.

A paper published by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation titled Do Faster Trains Challenge Air Carriers? Gives better insight. The paper avers that railways (29% of total market share) have overtaken airlines because the country’s government and business offices are concentrated in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka hence providing huge captive markets for railways.

“In Japan, airlines play a comparatively small role in domestic passenger transport but their share has grown at a fairly constant rate since the 1960s, and has jumped 5% in recent years. In favorable markets, airlines hold a virtual monopoly. The Japanese archipelago is only 500-km wide, but stretches about 2800 km north-south, similar to the distance from London to Athens! Consequently, long journeys in Japan are usually made by air. However, for cities less than about 750 km apart, railways are cutting into the airline’s market share, while airlines are gaining for cities that are further apart.”

Report: Do Faster Trains Challenge Air Carriers?

Since railway technology is where the Japanese government has laid most emphasis as far as public transport is concerned, technology has been heavily involved. Big Data use has been key.

East Japan Railway Company for instance has installed devices on its carriages to monitor misalignment and to check for the wearing of the overhead power wire.

“The operator will continue to collect data and plans to develop a system that will detect abnormalities and promote efficient maintenance” reads the report.

Air Transport

Japanese airports are renowned for punctuality and quality service.

The quality service does not cause unnecessary delays making the service convenient.

A Japan Airlines plane. The carrier is one of the dominant airlines in the country. Aviation in Japan has in the past twenty years been losing market share to high-speed rail. {Image Source: Flight Global}
A Japan Airlines plane. The carrier is one of the dominant airlines in the country. Aviation in Japan has in the past twenty years been losing market share to high-speed rail. {Image Source: Flight Global}

A global study done by aviation data research firm OAG ranked Haneda and Osaka airports first and second overall in the midsize and large airports categories respectively.

Two airlines dominate aviation in Japan. They are Japan Airlines (JAL) and Nippon Airways (ANA).

The two airlines not only dominate international and domestic air transport in major cities, but their subsidiaries also have a grip on flights to smaller towns and remote islands such as the Okinawan archipelago.

Big Data has also been applied to a considerable amount of success in Japanese aviation.

Japan airlines in November 2017 began harnessing Big Data to undertake analysis of the purchase of airline tickets.

“JAL is currently promoting the advancement of data analysis leveraging AI in marketing and various other fields but has faced challenges that include a scarcity of data scientists with advanced analytical skills and uncertainty as to how best to utilize the enormous amounts of data it possesses. Tests proved that AI can be used to conduct analysis with the same precision as a data scientist in a shorter period of time.”

NEC Report

Of Railway Kings and the Wildcard

Japan is on a mission.

How will the country beat the United States and China in the megalopolis contest?

The country must have gotten a hint that that will be easier said than done especially when China is considered after the latter gazumped the Yoshihide Suga-led nation to the Fastest Train in The World crown in July this year.

In that case, what will be the secret formula to emerge the fairest of them all?

The answer is straightforward: Big Data.

Japan knows it. The technology has worked a treat for them this far.

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