The Olympics is far more than just a sports event; it’s an opportunity for hosting nations to plunge currency into urban development, plying the cast-iron excuse that half the world will soon descend on their doorstep.

Controversies inevitably ensue, but when the smoke of the closing ceremony fireworks clears, a lasting legacy is often the result. See Rio de Janeiro, which transformed its overcrowded and unreliable transport network with new rapid transit bus, metro and light rail vehicle systems for the 2016 Olympics.

Taking the mantle for the next event in 2020, Tokyo is no stranger to the lasting effects of the Olympics on rail transport. Its world-famous Shinkansen bullet trains, currently bolting across the Japanese countryside at speeds of up to 320km/h, were launched to coincide with the 1964 Games.

However, a recent study undertaken at Chuo University has highlighted that Tokyo’s massively over-congested railway system may struggle to cope with the deluge of incoming passengers in 2020. It’s another worry for the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), which is already under intense scrutiny after construction delays on several venues.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization is pushing to boost the country’s number of inbound tourists to 40 million by 2020. Now, the clock is ticking down towards not one, but two sporting bonanzas (the capital is also hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019) and transport experts are working to find solutions to prevent railway gridlock. Will Tokyo’s railways pick up the baton in time?

Congestion and overcrowding

Tokyo’s rail network consists of a complex array of surface and underground lines, managed by a variety of private rail companies. Impeccable punctuality has become a staple of the network, as well as an absolute necessity, particularly during the morning rush hour.

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“Impeccable punctuality has become a staple of the Japanese network.”

Figures provided by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in September show that Tokyo’s rail system experienced 3.46 billion trips in 2017. So what happens when tourists from more than 200 countries join 40 million daily regulars on their commute?

In May, Chuo University professor Azuma Taguchi published a study revealing that overcrowding during the Olympics could ‘paralyse’ transfer stations and major lines, while stations nearest the venues could be hit by ‘fatal congestion’.

Taguchi told Japanese media he had carried out simulations of expected numbers during the morning rush. He found that the number of trains moving through Tokyo with congestion rates of more than 200% would increase by 50%. This isn’t ideal, given that Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) said in July that eleven train lines in Greater Tokyo area already exceeded a 180% congestion rate during peak travel hours.

According to Taguchi, solutions could include making commuters work from home, take the day off during peak hours, or closing stations near major venues to encourage fans to walk to events.

The first of these has been explored with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Jisa Biz campaign, in which hundreds of participating companies introduce staggered or flexible work schedules to prevent staff arriving simultaneously.

However, when it comes to walking, concerns have already been rife about staggering heat levels in Tokyo during the summer. On 23 July, a town 40 miles northeast of Tokyo reported temperatures exceeding 41.1°C, the highest temperature recorded in Japan. On 24 July 2020, when Tokyo’s Olympic Games begin, one wagers walking won’t be the most popular option.

Smooth and secure transportation

Takahiro Yamaguchi is a spokesperson for Tokyo Metro, which operates many subway lines in the city and has become an official partner of TOCOG. In a press release, Tokyo Metro said it would provide smooth transportation services by playing the role of a ‘navigator of Tokyo’.

Yamaguchi says that Gaienmae station on the Ginza line and Tatsumi on the Yurakucho line are likely to be the worst affected due to their proximity to Olympic venues. Nevertheless, he says that preparations are ongoing to ensure a smooth service.

“We are carrying out inspection of passenger flow at stations as well as passenger flow simulations to identify the causes of obstruction,” says Yamaguchi. “Larger numbers of station staff, security patrol staff will be on duty, along with other initiatives to handle overcrowded passenger operations.”

As part of its 2020 project, East Japan Railway Company (JR East) has committed to broadening platforms and expanding the range of barrier-free facilities at stations expected to be busy during the Games. It has also committed to working with other transportation providers to boost capacity when usage increases.

A knife attack on the Shinkansen train in June this year seemed to highlight the importance of new security measures before Tokyo’s sports events. Yamaguchi says that the number of surveillance cameras installed is being increased and that “image analysis functions are being strengthened”.

“Drills are being carried out with the police department and other related agencies in order to improve our coordination and collaboration, as part of overall reinforcement of security measures and organisation,” he says.

Making Tokyo’s railways more accessible

Practically an entire corner of the internet has been set aside for articles explaining Tokyo’s railways to clueless tourists. But how are operators working to make the network more accessible to those who are unfamiliar with it?

“JR East has committed to providing information in multiple languages at transit hubs.”

Much of the effort is in eliminating the need to know the lingo. Many stations in Tokyo do already have signage in English, but transparency is being increased even further by the introduction of new translation apps, guides and even customer-friendly robots at stations. JR East has committed to providing information in multiple languages at transit hubs and including station numbers on signs to eliminate confusion.

“Japanese station names are difficult for foreign visitors to remember,” says MLIT administrative official Masato Yamazaki. “I think that it’s very useful for foreign visitors to able to distinguish the destination station immediately.”

Yamaguchi says that a number of initiatives are being introduced to improve guidance at stations. ‘Service managers’ will be on hand to assist passengers at ticket vending machines in main terminal stations. The operator has also developed its snappy-named ‘Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists’ app, which provides offline information in a plethora of languages.

For passengers who would rather be online, Tokyo Metro is not only planning to provide free WiFi services at its stations, but across its entire train fleet by the summer of 2020.

Creating a lasting legacy

When it comes to the creation of new infrastructure and transportation systems, the Tokyo Olympics will mark an important milestone. Earlier this year, it was announced that Tokyo would be the first Olympic host to produce a report on the event’s ‘legacy’, based on a new universal framework created by the International Olympic Committee.

Indeed, major upgrades are set to chart a course for Japanese railways for the future. Marking the first new addition to Tokyo’s major JR Yamanote line since 1971, the Shinagawa New Station will be a brand new international exchange hub, featuring a sleek Origami-inspired design. Currently under construction, it is set to be opened temporarily for the Olympics, before commencing full operation in 2024.

In a mirror to 1964’s Olympics, a new sleeker and smarter bullet train model – the N700 Shinkansen – is set to debut on the Tokaido line in 2020. Yamazaki explains that the new model features a lighter design and new technology that shortens the reaction time for the train’s emergency braking system, improving its safety and environmental profile. “I believe that this Shinkansen will be of great help to foreign visitors during the Olympic period,” he says.

Finally, while it is expected to enter commercial operation in 2027, JR Rail has reported that Tokyo will debut a magnetic levitation (or ‘maglev’) train at the Tokyo Olympics. The operator says on its website that the train “has broken all land speed records and is capable of reaching speeds more than 374mph”.