Japanese Railways

23 December 2010
Market Urbanism
Rob Fisher

Stephen Smith, who describes himself as a libertarian urbanist, has a rather excellent blog called Market Urbanism. It’s about cities, and there are a lot of articles about transport. The most recent is called Japanese transit and what it can teach us. Another recent one is The “Systemic Failure” of US transportation policy.

Just give Access-a-ride users cash is interesting. This is New York’s scheme for subsidised transport for disabled and elderly people. Apparently it costs a fortune. $49 per door-to-door ride! I struggle to imagine how it has become so expensive. The MTA is planning to just give users subsidised cab rides instead, in an effort to cut costs. Stephen argues that it would be better to simply hand over cash.

But I think the more fundamental problem is that while cabs might at first blush look like good substitute for transit and paratransit, the truth is that people given cash grants could, oftentimes, think of much better and cheaper ways to spend the money. You could substitute some grocery store trips with walks to the nearest bodega, where you could spend a little more for your food. You could spend the money on rent to live in a place that’s more accessible. You could spend the money on having things delivered to your door from local stores, or shipped by internet-based retailers. And I know the city obviously can’t openly suggest this, but you could use it on cheaper gypsy cabs or informal drivers – something that is apparently already quite popular among Queens retirees, according to my great aunt Sylvia.

I wonder how that $49 per ride cost compares to London’s equivalent scheme, which just hands out free passes for free travel.


14 December 2007
Incredible indeed
Brian Micklethwait

From the capital letter hating but otherwise superb deputy dog, a piece appropriately entitled ever been on a train this nice?:

with the results looking nicer than most nurseries, the japanese have taken the idea of ‘child-friendly public transport’ to the next level with these 2 beauties, both designed by eiji mitooka. he was the artistic force behind ‘omoden’ (toy train) and ‘ichigo ec’ (strawberry train), a couple of regional trains which travel on a daily basis on the 14.3km kishigawa line in japan. the japanase are intent on making train travel a more comfortable experience for everyone, women and children especially, and the results are incredible.

both trains contain hundreds of toys, tv screens showing cartoons, immaculately clean wooden flooring and cots for younger children. call me cynical but i can’t imagine anything like this emerging in the uk unless it was an attraction at a theme park.

On no account refrain from following the above link, because the photos have to be seen to be believed, and even then you may not believe them.


I am told that the Japanese behave very well in public places.  Call me cynical, but the reason you’d never see this in the UK is that UKers as they now are would rip the place to pieces inside a week.

24 July 2007
New train: “...almost half as fast as an airplane.”
Patrick Crozier
New N700 Series

I admire the Japanese Bullet Trains (aka Shinkansens) very much - not least because I am not paying for them - but I had to laugh when I read this particular quote, marking the launch of the N700.  Is there a better way of saying: “Gather round everybody, look at us, we’re not very good.”?

If even the Japanese are struggling to say good things about trains, it all rather confirms my belief that as a form of transport they’re doomed.

In that vein I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling a list of insuperable train-travel bugs.  I mean problems that either cannot or probably never will be solved.  If I did I think I’d have to include this one, along with:

The ugliness of the view
The ugliness of the structures
The complexity of the fares
The inflexibility eg you can’t use trains for your trips to the DIY store
The actions of other people

Incidentally, I have yet to find out what the “N” stands for in N700.  Not-half-as-ugly-as-a 700, perhaps?

700 Series Shinkansen


29 January 2007
Brian Micklethwait

Boris Johnson piles in on the (not actually – we wish!) First Great Western train disaster:

Unbelievable! And even if they did want to lay on more capacity now, the Government interferes at every turn. There are currently 14 officials in the Department of Transport who are working on the railway timetable, and at a recent meeting with angry MPs Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, was seen to be poring over his copy of Bradshaw and musing on whether or not an 0848 service could be added to some branch line, in addition to the 0932. The Secretary of State!

The Government is simultaneously blaming the train companies for the mess, while bleeding them of cash and micromanaging the timetable to destruction, and at a time when passenger numbers have risen by 40 per cent over the past 10 years.

That was up at the Boris blog four days ago, so sorry about the delay linking to it.  But, I don’t suppose things have improved that much since then.

Some interesting comments at Boris’s, of which this was my favourite, from “idlex”:

I got lost on the subway of a Japanese city some 18 months ago, laden with shopping, baffled by the ticket machines and the maps. All of six Japanese people came to my assistance, one after the other, independently of each other, and guided me to my destination. The last one came up to me to simply ask if I needed any further help.

I wonder if that ever happens in London?

Probably not.  In London, we mostly mind our own business.  Which can be scary, I’d be the first to admit.

Most of the rest of the comments are of the “You started it”, “You’ve had time to fix” it, political bickering variety.  Apart from some nincompoop recommending this.

06 December 2006
How much did the Shinkansen cost?
Patrick Crozier

On InstaPatrick I am currently making the claim that the Japanese Shinkansen cost (all told) about £100bn (or getting on for £1000 per person).  I am basing that on the debt of 25 trillion yen that JNR had managed to rack up by the time it was liquidated in 19871 (the rate of exchange is about 250 yen to the pound last time I looked).

Reasons why it might be lower:

  • There were all sorts of other items included in JNR’s debt from operational losses to pensions for colonial railway staff.
  • Positive externality effects.

Reasons it might be higher:

  • They’ve built a whole bunch of lines since.  They are heavily subsidised by the government.
  • The Japanese government may well have been subsidising JNR’s Shinkansens even before 1987.
  • Inflation. Which is a whole other issue.

Whatever it is, it is a lot of money.

1. p29 The Privatisation of Japanese National Railways, Ishikawa and Imashiro, Athlone Press, London, 1998.

25 October 2006
Madverts in Japanese stations
Brian Micklethwait
Giant tea bottle

PingMag has a superb piece up called Top 10 ad-tricks in Tokyo’s train stations, of which my personal favourite is the giant tea bottles.  There are about thirty pictures – many superb.

Hat tip: Kristine Lowe, who I can personally vouch, wears great hats.  She got to this from Wired News.

Sorry, I edited this in “open” rather than in closed.  So very recent visitors will have been suffering extreme weirdness, involving two big bottles, then one big bottle, then the same bottle only smaller, and all the while with a caption just saying “Caption”.  Live and learn.  Plus, I discovered that in order to accommodate even the small version of the big bottle, I had to have more text.  Which was this drivel.  I wonder if I could get the picture to line up with the heading, rather than the top of the mere text.  That would have sufficed.

Patrick, why is there as space at the very beginning, just before “PingMag”?

Growing pains.  Lucky this blog isn’t a railway line.