Why are Japanese trains so punctual?

08/03/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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Railroads in Japan go back 140 years. Over this time, an impressive amount of know-how has been accumulated to ensure a smooth-running railways. This helped to design a system which today is considered to be one of the best in the world. Japanese society, which may seem very strict, has induced a way of managing the work of railway workers which means that the trains have remarkable punctuality. Let’s see this in detail.

High speed train
The high speed railway line in Japan began operation in 1964 and it is called ‘Shinkansen’. Japan’s raiways are known for their safety and reliability and the Shinkansen is well known for his punctuality. The average delay of trains is less than one minutes every year. The Shinkansen runs along dedicated lines, which allows to have only one technology and identical missions. This must be reminded in Europe to all opponents of high speed line who believe that an optimal railway is to mix all traffic on an existing line.

>>> To read : Boris Johnson gives green light to the high-speed rail line HS2

JR East is the largest of the Japanese railway companies, with 17 million passengers per day on 12,209 trains. The average delay for a Shinkansen train is around 20 seconds. For other trains operated by others railways companies, it is approximately 50 seconds. In both cases, the average delay is less than a minute. But these average figures must be tempered with the few incidents that may occur. Above all, it must be see from this performance the relentless search for railway perfection by the Japanese, from the humble commuter train to the famous Shinkansen. In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the bullet train, there was much hand-wringing over the fact that a year earlier the trains on that line had registered on average a delay — of six seconds. How to explain such a punctuality rate?

(photo IQRemix via flickr license)

The importance of a social culture
Above all, there is Japanese culture, to be the complete opposite of the our European cultures. Japan has always been a meritocratic society, more individualist, but through a collective, with great respect for that collective. Japanese citizens are very respectful of collective rules. Workers remain very loyal to their company, by individual choice, and not, as in Europe, because they belong to a social group or a union.

The dimension ‘uncertainty avoidance’ is also a characteristic feature of Japanese culture. The future can never be known: « should we try to control the future or just let it happen? » This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and japanese culture has learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways, by creation of an education system and institutions that try to avoid the uncertainty.

Order and discipline are part of the culture of the Japanese, who live in a very populated, very built country, and which is frequently prey to seismic conditions. Which did not prevent the Fukushima disaster, but beware of equivocal comparisons …

(photo Shutterstock)

Impact on order and discipline
All this necessarily has an impact on the work of Japanese railway workers, who do not feel they are part of a particular social body, an social island different from the others. The trend towards a job well done is therefore a priority and there is no question among them of using the railway as a social laboratory or as a political weapon.

Confrontational cultures hold disagreement and debate as being positive for the team or organization. This not the case in Japan, where there is a continual struggle to maintain harmony with others, as such, and in relation to their high-context communication style, it is extremely unlikely that they use direct disagreement methods as seen in Europe.

Japanese railway workers must translate ‘uncertainty avoidance’ into a very complex railway sector, according to three dimensions:

  • superhuman scale, with Japan that seems eternally overcrowded ;
  • countless interdependent segments (track, trains, stations);
  • a large proportion of tasks that need to be performed through human interaction, which is a risk and uncertainty factor.

This is also the reason why the Japanese remain very connected to technology and actively seek to produce the most autonomous train possible. But that’s another subject…

Towards zero delays…
Train conductors, drivers and station staff play an important role in the safe and efficient operation of the railways. A key aspect of which is the variety of physical gestures and vocal calls that they perform while undertaking their duties. While these might strike western tourists as silly, the movements and oral orders are a Japanese-innovated industrial safety method known as ‘shisa kanko‘ (pointing-and-calling), a system that reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent. It is therefore clearly both a culture of safety and a job well done, within the prescribed rules.

(photo cowardlion / Shutterstock.com)

Pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by « raising the consciousness levels of workers » — according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate. (1)

Strict and disciplined staff training plays a big role. 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 meter 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.

The same discipline is repeated when it is necessary to « turn over » a Shinkansen train, which departs in the opposite direction. Trains spend only 12 minutes at the station in Tokyo. That includes two minutes for passengers to disembark and three more for the next to get on, leaving only seven minutes for cleaning. One person is in charge of one car with around 100 seats, and the whole car must be made spotlessly clean during those crucial seven minutes. (2)

Cleaning staff ready on perron

But the impeccable treatment of the Japanese railways could not be what it is without the discipline of the passengers themselves. No pushing and shoving, each at his own place, each Shinkansen must stop within an half meter because the platforms are equipped with safety gates whose doors must match with those of the train (see the excellent video below).

The Japanese show us a very strict society that certainly cannot be duplicated elsewhere in the world. We can nevertheless notice that in Europe, our TGV, Frecciarossa and ICE can sometimes achieve very good punctuality rates without putting extreme pressure on the staff. The big difference is that Europe has cities more widely spaced than concentraded urbanization in Japan and, despite its 550 million inhabitants, the Continent does not give the impression of being overpopulated as is the case in many Asian countries. Finally, certain aspects of Japanese management can be retained with regard to the efficiency and commitment of the personnel in the company. But we live just as well with the railway as we have…

(1) 2017 – Atlasobscura.com – Allan Richarz – Why Japan’s Rail Workers Can’t Stop Pointing at Things – A seemingly silly gesture is done for the sake of safety.

(2) 2014 – Japan Today – Cara Clegg – Shinkansen cleaning crew have just 7 minutes to get train ready

Others references :

2010 – Norio Tomii – Chiba Institute of Technology – How the punctuality of the Shinkansen has been achieved

2017-  Ashley Hamer – Curiosity.com – Shisa Kanko May Look Odd To Outsiders, But It Keeps Train Passengers Safe

2019 – Danielle Demetriou – The Telegraph – Why is Japan so obsessed with punctuality?

08/03/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
Suscribe my blog

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