Across the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and its neighbouring prefectures, millions of citizens rely on the rail network to get to and from work every day. More than 100 passenger rail lines serve almost 900 interconnected stations across the city, with annual ridership estimated to be a hefty 13 billion a year.

Efficient railways are not just a symptom of Japanese attitudes towards punctuality, but a necessity. Train drivers are rigorously trained to cover track distances within seconds of an allotted time. Upon arrival, white-gloved station employees perform a series of point-and-call signals to keep things moving with military precision.

Nevertheless, research by the Railway Bureau of the Ministry of Land Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) has revealed that Greater Tokyo’s railways are not infallible. The report found that 29 of 45 lines serving Tokyo experienced morning rush-hour delays on at least ten of 20 working days per month in 2016.

Foreigners making the trips to the Japanese capital are regularly assured that the trains ‘always run on time’. However, the evidence suggests that the most efficient railway in the world is feeling the strain.

Cramming trains with commuters

Congestion and overcrowding are a major issue for Tokyo railways, and it’s not hard to see why. Around 40 million passengers use trains in the region every day, and images of passengers being crammed sardine-like into carriages regularly pop up online.

The Railway Bureau’s report found that most delays on the surveyed lines were minor, coming in at somewhere between five and ten minutes. Passengers attempting to board trains past departure times accounted for 47.2% of these holdups, while 16% were linked to train doors reopening when obstructed.

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“Passengers attempting to board trains past departure times accounted for 47.2%.”

One of the most delay-prone lines, the JR Chuo-Sobu, experienced rush-hour delays on an average of 19.1 business days per month. On its journey between the Japanese localities of Mitaka and Chiba, the line passes through major residential areas, as well as Akihabara, Tokyo’s bustling electronics hub. It also makes a stop at Shinjuku, which is said to be the busiest train station in the world.

“The main factor is considered to be attributable to railway users,” says Railway Bureau administrative official Masato Yamazaki. “Due to the congestion, it takes a long time to get on and off the train. Therefore the train cannot depart from the station on time.”

Tokyo’s subways often bear the brunt of the commuter onslaught. Tokyo Metro, which runs nine subway lines, reported delays on between seven and 18 working days a month on average.

“We believe that not only is overcrowding a cause of delay, but it can also be a danger to passenger movement,” says Tokyo Metro spokesperson Takahiro Yamaguchi.

Delays passed down the line

Tokyo’s ludicrously complex metro map gives a fairly good impression of the network’s density. Separately owned regional lines mesh together with inner city subways, meaning that suburban-bound commuter trains continue directly onto subway routes.

This interconnectivity, which Yamaguchi refers to as ‘reciprocal through-service operation’, can lead to delays being passed on to the metro from partnering lines.

“Seven of our total of nine lines operate reciprocal through-service (inter-running operation), each with different partner line railway operators,” he says. “Since the delay of those lines is carried over into our lines, the delay rate varies.”

Shigeru Morichi, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, explains that the flexibility of travel options offered by the network is a double-edged sword, as a delay can cause a ripple effect. He also says that there are too many trains on the track, and a fault in the vehicle at the front can be a catalyst for speed reduction along the rest of the line.

“There are alternative routes for each trip, from origin to destination, because of the high density of the network,” he says. “When a line is delayed, the passengers transfer to the alternative line. Then the alternative line is delayed because of overcrowding.”

Preventing suicides

According to the MLIT report, major rail interruptions of 30 minutes or longer were significantly less common, occurring less than one work day a month across 35 lines. Nevertheless, suicides account for 43.6% of long-term delays, highlighting a disturbing trend still prevalent on the railways.

“Japanese rail operators began initiatives to curb incidences of train suicides in the late 1990s.”

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the number of suicides in the country last year was 21,140. This the lowest figure for Japan in more than 20 years, but still one of the highest for a developed nation worldwide. Unfortunately, stories of passengers jumping in front of trains still hit the headlines.

Japanese rail operators began initiatives to curb incidences of train suicides in the late 1990s, which tie in with moves to enhance safety. Platform screen doors – barriers that stretch along the edge of platforms and open and close for passengers – are being installed at more stations in the capital.

“In recent years, we have been committed to installation of platform doors,” says Yamaguchi. “Completion of installation on the entire network is planned for 2025. As of 31 March 2017, installation has been completed on 55% [of the network].”

Visual systems have also been introduced at Tokyo stations to help deter train jumpers. LEDs emitting a calming blue light have been installed at stations along the Yamanote line, which has reportedly reduced suicide incidents since the 2009 peak. Meanwhile, Shin-Koiwa station has installed signs with suicide hotline numbers.

Moving forward

Of the issues explored, rail experts appear to agree that congestion is still the biggest problem affecting punctuality during rush hour. Morichi says that more lines should be introduced, more carriages should be added to train cars, and that the number of platforms should be increased at stations so they can accommodate more trains running in the same direction.

“As for concrete infrastructural measures, we are renovating station facilities, such as installing new or expanding platforms,” says Yamaguchi. “As for passenger interaction measures, we have dispatched security guards to the platforms to assist them, and implemented off-peak commuting campaigns.”

Speaking to the Straits Times, Tokyo Foundation research fellow Shoko Yoshihara said that scheduling more trains wouldn’t offset delays at rush hour. Instead, the onus would be on employers to introduce more flexi-work schemes that allow staggered hours for employees, thereby preventing everyone boarding the same train at 8am.

This solution has already been observed by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who launched the pilot programme of the municipal government’s Jisa Biz campaign in 2017. During the campaign, train companies ran more trains earlier in the morning, allowing employees to stagger the times they arrived at the office.

Changing employers’ attitudes could take time, and as young people continually migrate into Tokyo to find work and attend university, railways will continue to face increasing demands. Nevertheless, countries are still looking to export concepts from Japanese railways to bolster their own networks, and the findings of the Railway Bureau report are unlikely to change this.