Discussions, No.2  Sept. 30, 2010


If the railroad industry were likened to a living organism, the perfect analogue would be plants. Tracks are firmly rooted to the ground, with train lines covering a fixed span of territory. When neighborhoods prosper, so does the industry, with more trains running through them; when they decline, the line also falls into disuse. Train service cannot move to new locales when the number of passengers declines; it continues to live and grow with the community it serves.

Rootedness is a common trait of the industry in countries around the world. When the social environment changes, the industry must adapt to the changes or face extinction. Inasmuch as railroad lines cannot “migrate” to greener pastures like animals, they must develop thoroughgoing strategies for adapting to change.

The single most outstanding feature of rail transport in Japan is its capacity to adjust the entire system in accordance with the operating environment. The railroad industry integrates countless elemental technologies in building up a mammoth system that assigns precise roles for workers to follow and ensures high performance. Japan’s railroad industry has excelled at painstakingly and thoroughly making such adjustments since its inception.

The most notable fruit of such efforts is the clocklike punctuality of Japan’s trains. Shinkansen bullet trains reach their destinations within a minute of their scheduled arrival times around 95% of the time, and the figure for other lines in the Japan Railways system is around 90%.

Given that delays of 10 to 15 minutes are not even considered “late” in most other countries but are regarded as being “on time,” the punctuality of rail service in Japan is in a class of its own. The average delay for a Shinkansen train is around 20 seconds; for other trains operated by the Japan Railways group of companies, it is approximately 50 seconds. In both cases, the average delay is less than a minute.

Remarkably, this punctuality has been a feature of Japan’s rail services–day in, day out– for decades now, regardless of rain and wind. This is a record that spans 45 years for the Shinkansen service and nearly a century (since the late 1910s) for other JR lines. [1. There were times, of course, when long delays were unavoidable, such as during World War II, in the wake of major disasters like earthquakes, or during the period of intense labor unrest in the 1970s. Newly inaugurated train lines were also periodically plagued by breakdowns. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which now boasts exceptionally smooth service, for instance, often ran into unexpected problems in its first year or two. Because these trains achieved speeds exceeding 200 kilometers per hour for the first time anywhere in the world, they sometimes ran into problems that were totally unanticipated. With the exception of these disruptions, railroads in Japan have generally been marked by clocklike punctuality.]

Some countries may laugh at this apparent obsession with punctuality, attributing such fastidiousness to Japanese passengers’ maniacal preoccupation with time.

But the real reason that trains run on time is not because of demanding passengers but because it suits the adaptation strategies of the railroad companies. That is, it enables the operators to achieve the safest and most efficient railroad system.

In any country, a system in which all trains run according to schedule is the simplest to manage. [2. This is particularly true when trains are being operated at short intervals or at high speeds. Rail service in Japan was inaugurated in 1872, and trains were being run at short intervals before very long. This has become a given in the industry in Japan.] This is because it enables rail operators to achieve maximum carrying capacity with the given equipment and with the least likelihood of error.

This is easy to understand if you imagine what would happen if a train was 20 minutes late on a line where cars normally run at 2- or 3-minute intervals, or if a bullet train, normally running at well over 200 kilometers per hour every 7 or 8 minutes, was delayed for half an hour.

Japan’s railroad operators, who introduced short-interval service from an early date, were well aware that delays would instantly undermine their transport capacity. When changes occur in the time of arrival and departure, they give rise to human error, possibly leading to major accidents. This is a lesson they have learned from bitter experience.

Operating a Giant System

Railroads were born in Britain in the nineteenth century and soon spread throughout the world. From the very beginning, a railroad network was conceived of as a mammoth system. Railroad employees working tens or even hundreds of kilometers apart must be able to communicate with one another and work together to ensure safe and efficient service. By its very nature, the railroad industry entails controlling a system that cannot be operated by human strength alone. This is the reason operators came up with ways to handle a variety of mammoth systems.

One thing that was key to maintaining control was to eliminate as many variables as possible in advance. By creating a timetable, it was possible to ascertain more or less where each train was running at any given time. And establishing rules and manuals prescribing how rail workers were to conduct themselves made it possible to predict the behavior of colleagues far away in the system.

When lines are extended and the number of trains increases, the scale of operations grows. This necessitates unique management methods to maintain quality control in a mammoth system incorporating tens–even hundreds–of thousands of parts and components.

Such methods of organizing and training railroad workers were developed quite early. Many parts of a rail system covering long distances are operated manually. The operating system is one in which human interaction–including with passengers–plays a vital role.

Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., a professor of business history at Harvard Business School, published a series of studies in which he identified railroad companies as having been America’s first “big business.”[3. They include, for example, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977) and “The United States: Evolution of Enterprise” in Peter Mathias and M.M. Postan, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).] The rail industry was indeed the first to tackle the challenge of dealing with the distinctive nature of giant systems.

Avoiding Disturbances through Teamwork

Keeping trains on time requires constant control over problems relating to the three distinctive features of giant systems: namely, superhuman scale, innumerable components, and a large proportion of tasks that need to be performed through human interaction. Such challenges must be met through organizational strength, conceptual powers, meticulous attention to detail, vigilance, ongoing reforms, and sensitivity to the possibility of human error.

What, in concrete terms, are Japan’s railroads doing to ensure the above? A glance at the actual tasks railroad operators undertake can offer hints.

First of all, train drivers need superlative skills to keep average delays to less than a minute, and Japanese drivers pass this requirement with flying colors. If train driving were an Olympic event, Japanese drivers would walk away with the gold every time.

A veteran driver on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen that links Tokyo and Osaka noted that all bullet train drivers are capable of reaching their destinations within five seconds of the scheduled arrival time and of bringing the train to a halt within one centimeter of its prescribed stopping position. The trains these drivers are operating with such great precision consist not just of 1 or 2 coaches, moreover, but are very long trains of more than 10 cars.

Such skills border on sheer artistry, but driving skills alone are not enough to ensure punctual operations. There are many other, often hidden factors that could cause delays.

Let me illustrate using a soccer analogy. To score, a team must have good strikers, but without others to feed passes to them, these forwards will not have a chance to shoot. Scoring a goal requires close teamwork among all the players on the field, who in turn require strong support from the coaches on the sidelines, the fans in the stands, and even corporate sponsors.

Similarly, an extensive supporting cast is in place to help drivers perform at their best. In fact, almost all the work of ensuring delay-free operations is already done by the time the driver gets in behind the controls.

First of all, there are people whose job is to prevent mechanical and other hardware-related problems. Although passengers rarely see such workers in action, servicing crews inspect the underside of trains every day and carry out regular maintenance work on the coaches. There are also track maintenance personnel who correct tiny deviations in the alignment of rails late at night, when most people are fast asleep. There are huge numbers of things to check and fix in a giant structure like a railroad system, such as overhead wires, tunnel walls, bridges, and stations. Clocklike accuracy would be impossible if there were breakdowns in railroad signals, communication equipment, or the seat-reservation system. The work of such “defenders” is vital to keeping trains running trouble-free.

In addition, there is the work of building software to operate the hardware. Train schedules are devised by professionals so that they can operate without delays. The meticulously created schedules are resilient to heavy rain or snow and to special events along the line that attract large crowds. Passenger needs and all foreseeable circumstances are taken into account when schedules are drafted and are fully incorporated into the final timetables.

The “midfielders” in the train industry are the workers in the operations room, who can quickly improvise new schedules when the original becomes inoperable and restore stability to the system. These “playmakers” vigilantly monitor the entire system and resurrect the game plan in the case of unavoidable delays. Constantly checking the soundness of operations, they issue instructions to the drivers and the station staff.

Both station workers and crewmembers receive regular training on the specific and highly detailed rules to follow in case troubles do crop up.

Know-how Amassed over 140 Years

Railroads in Japan go back 140 years. Over this time, an impressive amount of know-how has been accumulated to ensure a smooth-running system. The crystallization of this knowledge is the set of rules governing operations and the countless manuals that workers have to follow. The punctuality of the Shinkansen, the marvel of many people around the world, is the product of such accumulated know-how.

It is important to remember that all this wealth of knowledge about running trains on time would be meaningless should a single link in the chain perform at less than 100%. In fact, the clocklike punctuality of Japan’s trains would probably crumble if everyone was satisfied with performing at 99.9% (that is, making one error every 1,000 times).

Because tens or hundreds of thousands of components are involved in running a railroad, the rate of reliability must be as high as 99.9999%. In other words, to operate a railroad system satisfactorily, the likelihood of error must be kept down to about one in a million.

Just one faulty part in one railroad car can cause delays in one train after another. Just a single defect in the overhead wiring or along the tracks could paralyze the entire system. To avoid such a scenario, mechanisms have been developed over the years to enable all “players” on the railroad team to perform at their best. Probably the biggest strength of Japan’s railroad industry is a corporate culture that not only creates such mechanisms but also nurtures and supports them with patience and perseverance.

The Passenger as Player

Although few people are aware of this, passengers in Japan also have had a hand in the achievement of such quality services. People riding the trains are generally well behaved, and there is very little vandalism, such as the spraying of graffiti or the tearing of seats. As a result, 100% of the cars–even backup coaches–are always in serviceable condition. There are exceptional cases of people hurling themselves in front of trains to attempt suicide, but for the most part passengers are cooperative with railroad operations. They have even developed a unique etiquette in terms of getting on and off trains that has contributed to keeping trains running smoothly.

A ride on Japanese trains gives a good idea of such passenger behavior. When a train approaches a station, those who wish to get off will gather their belongings and approach the door. Along the platform, people waiting to get on are lined up neatly where the doors will open.

When the doors open, people inside the train get off first, which takes about 10 seconds. Then those on the platform get on, which usually takes another 10 seconds. Because of such cooperative behavior, the boarding and disembarking takes just 20 seconds. An alarm sounds to warn that the doors are closing, and the train is off to its next stop.

During the 30 seconds or so that the train stops at each station, there is probably not 5 seconds of wasted time. Such orderliness may appear to be a natural outgrowth of Japan’s national character, but in fact it was actively inculcated into passengers’ minds by the then Japanese National Railways in the 1920s. Passengers too have been “trained” to behave according to prescribed rules and codes of conduct.

Such efficiency was necessitated by the boom that followed World War I. Rapid economic growth led to the doubling of rail transport demand in just three years, which JNR chose to meet not by doubling the number of cars but by shortening the time trains stopped at each station.

Because of the urban roots of Japan’s railroads, the distance between each station has always been quite short, and trains made frequent stops. If the two-minute stops at each station were shortened to just 20 seconds, it was reasoned, this would reduce the time required for a train to travel from one end of the line to the other (supposing there are 10 stations along the way) by 16 minutes 40 seconds. If the train then turned back immediately for the return leg, the number of runs per train could be significantly increased, thereby boosting transport capacity.

This clever idea could be implemented without making any investments in new equipment or waiting for new trains to be built. It was introduced by the JNR in 1925, and people were informed of the new rules through posters placed inside the stations. The posters promoted the idea of orderly boarding and disembarkation; passengers getting off the train were given precedence, after which those waiting on the platform could get on. This shortened the stopping time at each station and speeded up the service. More people could be transported during rush hour, and congestion could be reduced. Everyone was satisfied.

In 1914, the average stopping time at major stations in the greater Tokyo area was two minutes; by 1925, this was down to 20 seconds. This was a truly revolutionary development that generated a six-fold increase in the pace of people’s movement at these stations over a span of just 10 years.

This stroke of genius typifies the lengths to which railroad companies in Japan have gone to ensure smooth and efficient service. Modern-day passengers may not be aware of the historical roots of the rules they are following, but they continue to form the basis of railroad operations today.

Large Flows from Small Stocks

The task of keeping trains on time is one that requires ongoing adjustments in all aspects of the operating system. The Japanese archipelago is long and narrow, with mountain chains running through the center like a spine. There are also many fast-flowing rivers, but plains are scarce, and the population tends to be concentrated in a few pockets of relatively flat ground. The greater Tokyo area is a huge metropolis of over 30 million residents, but there are many depopulated areas in the outlying regions. The archipelago suffers from frequent earthquakes, and typhoons pummel the country each year. There are seasons marked by torrential downpours, heavy snowfall, and scorching heat.

The laying of tracks in itself under such natural and urban conditions can be quite a challenge. Many tunnels and bridges have to be built, some of them posing significant engineering difficulties. Mountains must be leveled, soil reinforced, and innumerable sensors set up in case of disasters. Railroad crossings need to be placed and maintained, and tracks elevated in areas with heavy traffic.

In major urban areas, where land is particularly scarce, the need to realign the railroad system to adapt to changes in society has often been met by making fuller use of existing facilities, instead of building new lines or buying new equipment. Such constraints have compelled railroad companies to hone their skills even further to create bigger flows with limited stocks.

The art of doubling transport capacity in the space of just a few years without significant new investment was mastered nearly a century ago. The Tōhoku and Jōetsu Shinkansen lines once ran 240 trains each day using just two tracks leading to Tokyo Station. Most rail operators around the world would find such feats hard to believe, but they are performed as a matter of course in Japan.

Japan’s gross national product per habitable land area is many times–in some cases, many tens of times–higher than other industrial countries. Because people are squeezed into small pockets of flat land, creating large flows with limited stocks has long been a basic premise of economic activity in the country. In fact, it forms the basis for all aspects of human activity in Japan and has even played a part in shaping the country’s culture. Its manifestation in the railroad industry is a natural outgrowth of a deeper cultural orientation.

Rewriting the Rules

The country’s very first railroad line, built in 1872 between Shinbashi and Yokohama Stations, was 100% imported. Because the Meiji government was eager to introduce railroads into Japan and quickly modernize the country, it procured the entire system from Britain, including not only the steam locomotives and passenger coaches but also the tracks and wooden sleepers; highly paid personnel like drivers, timetable makers, and mechanical and civil engineers; as well as coal, clocks, funds, and even the modern time-keeping system.

A system that was developed in the West was merely grafted onto an essentially Edo-period [1603-1868] trunk, so there was considerable confusion at first.[1. Until then, the Japanese used a temporal system in which one day was divided into 12 hours, with each new hour being announced by the ringing of temple bells. It was the railroad timetable that introduced the concept of minutes and seconds into Japanese society. Quite naturally, many people missed their trains at first. The driver’s seat was designed for use in Britain and was too high for the Japanese. In these ways, certain aspects of the railroad system, which was built to British standards, were difficult to use in Japan.] But in less than 20 years, the Western experts that the government had hired to run the system had all gone home, and their place was taken by local workers.

By the 1920s, the system of rules–representing the accumulated know-how of railroad operations–was rewritten to conform to reality in Japan. This shows that although railroad technology was initially imported from the West, it was reformed and renovated by JNR and transformed into something quite original. It was from around this time that Japanese railroads began to be characterized by clocklike accuracy. The pursuit of punctuality, therefore, was clearly a choice that the railroad operators in Japan consciously made on their own.

In Japan, too, trains were often late by 20 minutes or so through the end of the Meiji era [1868-1912]. This is a standard that is still seen in railroads around the world today, so Japanese operators would have been satisfied with their achievement then. But this standard would have been unable to keep up with changes in society.

Over the next century, the pace of life in Japan began to increase dramatically. The country experienced rapid growth, with the economy doubling in scale several times over since the end of World War II. The major cities saw an incredible influx of people from around the country, leading to an explosion of real-estate prices. On the other hand, the outlying areas became depopulated. The bubble economy subsequently burst, and there has been a marked drop in the birthrate and graying of the population. Today, we live in an information network society and are increasingly concerned about addressing global environmental issues. These have been great changes indeed.

But throughout this period, railroads in Japan have generally run on time. This suggests that new technologies have been introduced to enable the system to adapt to the changes in the structure of society and passenger demand.

Remarkable as it may seem, giant new underground terminal stations and station buildings are often built and the tracks leading into the station reconnected without any interruptions to the service of trains operating every two or three minutes.

Why do railroad operators go to such lengths to build new infrastructure? Because they are interested in keeping the system as simple, safe, and efficient as possible well into the future.

Certainly, such thinking did not evolve overnight. Efforts to upgrade infrastructure on an ongoing basis go back as far back as the seventh century and were commonplace throughout Japan by the seventeenth century. Railroads are a reflection of the country’s culture. They cannot be expected to function effectively simply by importing hardware from another country.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo Web. [September 2010]


MitoYūko, Teikoku hassha: Nihon shakai ni surikomareta tetsudō no rizumu (Departure On Schedule: The Railway Rhythm Imprinted on Japanese Society) (Tokyo: Kōtsū Shimbunsha, 2001; reprinted as a Shinchō Bunko paperback, Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2005)