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Apology after Japanese train departs 20 seconds early (bbc.co.uk)
337 points by gridscomputing on Nov 16, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 277 comments



How does the Japanese system live with the stuff that plagues Western transportation systems?

For example in Munich there is nearly every day one or more huuuge delays due to:

- people on the track (sprayers, drunkards, people whose phone fell down)

- animals on the track, ranging from stray dogs over wolves to deer - and in some cases, entire herds of sheep... one caused an ICE to derail and destroy a huge amount of tunnel track in the progress once.

- suicides (1.000 suicides in Germany per year, and that's only the successful ones)

- accidents on street crossings (okay, that's eliminated on the highspeed tracks, but regional traffic and metro rails suffer often enough)

- kids letting balloons loose in the underground sections, where they shorten out the power line, sometimes causing major destruction - and occasionally it's a bird that does the same and ends up grilled

- absolute morons who do not make room for people trying to exit the train

- people with disabilities (wheelchair users, but also old people who simply have problems moving!), who sometimes need to be attended by the conductor, e.g. to put out a ramp

- technical breakdowns

However, in Japan this seems to be nearly unheard of.


I can't give you a link to official figures, but from living there 6 years I can answer a few questions.

Suicide: by train isn't uncommon, but if they have to delay one line, there are similar lines people can use to route around the area (usually, and to great discomfort).

People on the track: I have only seen this once, aside from workers and they know the schedules and have watchers to make sure the lines are clear.

Morons not moving: pretty hard Todo that with the sheer mass of bodies moving out ;) also there is a system everyone adopts, on the outside everyone lines up in two lines outside the carriage doors, and let's the train empty, before attempting to get in.

Its quite amazing how well it works.


>there is a system everyone adopts, on the outside everyone lines up in two lines outside the carriage doors, and let's the train empty, before attempting to get in.

I would make a joke but it is interesting how having a culture that values the whole rather than the individual influences how they use public transportation.

In NJ/NYC, I stand away from the door and people actually shove in front of me and through people getting off.


I don't know how much of it is culture exactly -- I find at Toronto's Bloor-Yonge station that people often do this -- they line up in two columns by the doors to let folks off before entering. I won't say it's done perfectly, but regular commuters seem to know it, here. It makes sense from a self-interest perspective: the faster you clear a path and allow folks off, the faster you can get on before the doors start closing. All bets are off at most other stations in Toronto though, they're often not busy enough for it to become an expected behaviour.


Although it's been years since I've been overseas, I recall seeing similar behavior in Australia (no idea if it's changed; I doubt it). People waiting to board the train would let the people on the train disembark before attempting to board themselves. I'd imagine anyone forcing their way on would be met with an unwelcome reception.

As you said, it's just common sense.


We do, not 100% of the time, but damn close (usually non-locals and jerks that will push in past those coming off).

As for Japan, I was amazed when taking the trams down in the south where, from what I remember, you got on via the back doors (taking a ticket, which was optional some times depending on the trip), then you would slowly move forward to the front to pay on departure via a coin collector near the driver. Change machines were also on the trams. The ride and transaction was seamless as everyone always had correct change, the collection of money took little to no time (we're talking nobody really stopped, drop money in, keep walking) and because everyone was entering and leaving the assigned doors, everything just worked.


It really did surprise me that I can only recall one or two cases of people not actually lining up properly.

I think that, more than anything else, showed to me the huge difference between the Japanese culture compared to Australian.


I've mentioned this to a friend a few times, the biggest differences between the Japanese and Australian public transport systems is that we (Au) take ours for granted. We don't care about our trains and buses until they are not there (strikes), or late (traffic/human delays), and then we complain rather than attempt to fix the problem.

If our everyday work life depended on our transport system, and I mean really depended on it, we'd see a dramatic shift between what we have now and what we would have.


I live in a metro center 90 mins outside of Sydney CBD - I absolutely despise the train network it is expensive and perennially delayed. At least here locally trains occasionally won't even show up no announcement or anything just no train at the station. Due to funding cuts our local station isn't staffed anymore so you can't ask anyone whats going on just a bunch of people left on platform scratching their heads when train doesn't arrive nothing you can do except wait for next train.

I fly to Melbourne fairly regularly. Any trip that touches airport line adds about $15 to the fare because some genius decided it was a good idea to privatize the airport line. I spend almost a third of my airfare cost just on travelling to airport.


I'm only 10 minutes away from Brisbane CBD, and my closest bus/train stations have no staff. I remember 15 years ago the train station did having staff there for ticketing, but not anymore.

I used to see full length empty trains going out to the coast during peak hour as a "limited stop" service, yet regular commuters would have to pack onto 3 car all stop services. That there caused me to stop taking the train. The bus system also has it's faults but is generally ok. Worst I've seen are the ghost buses that just don't turn up but are still on the status boards.

Airport train fares were a exploited for a while until they did a crackdown on the passes. It'd cost you $10~ to go from the CBD to the airport, but the passes would only cost you $5. You could tap on to get on the train, and never tap off (which incurred a $5 fee, but you didn't care) then bin the pass afterwards because you weren't going to pay that fee.

It's these sorts of things are why our transport system will never progress, we are always looking to screw over something that we don't hold value in. If we needed it, we'd pay for it in fear of not having it.


The best advice I got about using the subway in Japan was this: if you're not sure where to queue up, just stand somewhere and people will queue behind you. Sure enough it works like magic.


Not sure where you are, but people line up here. For buses, people will often form one orderly line, because there is only one entry. On trams and trains, people will stand next to the doors and move to the side to let people off. I have seen this in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.


Sydneysider here. It's highly inconsistent. I've been to Tokyo a few times and people _always_ allow others to alight first. Here in Australia it's more often than not a free for all. I have even had people push me back into a carriage when I and others are clearly trying to get off.


It is culture, but also a whole system of making it simple.

There are markers to show where the doors will stop, and the train will actually stop there. So people can line in advance in prediction of where the train stops.

The markers are far enough from the border so people are nudged to stay within safe distance.

Staff is dispatched on the platforms at rush hour to deal with people wondrop their stuff, need assistance, lost their way or take dangerous behaviors.

France railways started some similar ideas (like having staff on the platforms at rush hour) with various level of success, but they don’t seem to be ready to invest enough to go all the way. Basically I think other countries’ railways just don’t care enough.


In Switzerland, people also stand in two lines next to the doors, so people can get out first. Everyone follows that, the ones who don't are mostly young people who aren't used to riding trains. They get starred down pretty quickly (social inhabitor in Switzerland #1) and learn to adapt.


It's not too much related to the "culture of the whole" - it works amazingly well in Vienna too, it's considered really rude to not queue up at the sides of the door in the subway/tram, or to stand left on the escalator - and mostly people really respect it.


I don't understand why in the us they don't paint instructions on the floor like they do in Singapore.


IIRC the trains in NY are not all the same, so even if they did stop at exactly the same spot, then the markings would be off for some trains.

The signalling sounds like it is ancient in the NY system, and they don't seem to have the budget or will to fix it.


They do in San Francisco (at some of the downtown Muni platforms, and at all of the BART platforms). Suggestions will only go so far. These sorts of things work well in Singapore and Japan because there's far more deference to authority.


I think those people stand out, and most people follow that rule (barring rush hour traffic)


Also NYC has a lot of people coming out from all over the world to visit or to immigrate - it takes a bit to learn the train culture.


Singapore is also a very popular tourist destination but even as a tourist it's very easy to find and follow the rules. For ex. the place were trains stop are marked and request to queue there are painted on the floor.


I was impressed by the Japanese stations that had markings on the platform to show exactly where the doors will be for a particular train. People would queue on these markings and the trains would glide to a halt exactly in the right space.

I believe they also vary the door positions for different routes, so you can have people queuing for two separate trains on the same platform without any confusion or disruption.


Not only that, in some places there is even a second and third departure waiting queue like in Ginza Line in Shibuya.

People do wait there on rush hour not for the next train, but for two trains later (same train). The justification is that it is the beginning of the line, and if you wait 3-5 min longer you'll be able to sit for the whole trip.


There is the cultural thing, but Japanese transit is also extremely well staffed to the point where any anomalies are caught and dealt with preemptively. It's endless city rail for the most part, and there are no true gaps until you're fairly far.

During rush hour they have white gloved attendants pushing people in doors and confirming no hanging luggage or limbs, etc.

Shinkansen tracks are also often suspended or walled in.

In Tokyo you'll also often see signs apologizing for delays, but since the trains are still arriving every 2 minutes, it won't make a difference to you or your schedule whether that specific train is off schedule.

Another factor is that many lines share tracks also. This means everything needs to be on time, or else they won't mesh. Even on one line you'll have various flavors of express that overtake slower trains on the same rail at stations... meaning they have to be on time.

Of course, none of this is cheap, and neither are the tickets. It's not uncommon to find plane tickets cheaper than Shinkansen tickets. And even going 3 stations from Shibuya to Shinjuku will cost you 2 dollars on the Yamanote line. You could easily spend 10 dollars a day on a daily basis just getting around the city, and multiply that by the number of people who use the system, and it's a fortune.


> And even going 3 stations from Shibuya to Shinjuku will cost you 2 dollars on the Yamanote line. You could easily spend 10 dollars a day on a daily basis just getting around the city, and multiply that by the number of people who use the system, and it's a fortune.

Fun fact: Shinkansen tickets are about the same price as Acela Express tickets. Except the Japanese trains are unsubsidized while Amtrak is heavily subsidized (Congress pays capital costs). And the Japanese trains are fast and reliable, while Amtrak is the opposite of those things.

Also: minimum D.C. Metro fare in peak hours is $2.25. Metro is also a disaster, with tunnels catching fire, etc.


I was curious, so did a quick check. It's even worse than you describe! I did a comparison between Tokyo->Kyoto (~280mi, ~US$123, 2h18m) and NY->DC (~230mi, US$198, 2h55m). That comes out to $0.44/mi @ ~122mph on the Shinkansen, and $0.86/mi @ ~79mph on the Acela. So the Shinkansen is both cheaper (by almost half!) and faster (1.5x!), even without Amtrak's usual delays and unreliability.

I was in Japan this past summer and took a Shinkansen train from Odawara to Yokohama. It was about 37 miles in 16 minutes, and only cost ~US$18. It felt magical in a way that train travel in the US just can't compete with.


Just throwing this out there, buy JR Passes if you are going to be traveling a lot via Shinkansen (especially if you did what we did, Osaka->Kagashima->Kumamoto->Beppu->Nagasaki->Hiroshima->Kyoto->Osaka), it's worth it.


JR passes are phenomenal value, and give you a lot of flexibility. We once caught the wrong train from Nara and ended up in Osaka instead of Kyoto. No big deal: the next Shinkansen was a fifteen-minute wait, made the 50km trip in about the same amount of time, and cost us zero dollars on top of what we'd already paid for our passes.


D.C. Metro is a special case as far as world metro systems go.

Fast, Cheap, Reliable - pick none, should be their slogan.


Fast, Cheap, Reliable - pick none, should be their slogan.

"WMATA: It probably won't catch on fire today"


All these comparisons are unfair, because Japan had the good fortune to be bombed into oblivion in the 1940s, enabling them to start with a more or less clean sheet and 20th century technology.

In western cities (apart from Germany, also conveniently bombed) our train systems are stuck compensating for bad decisions made in the 1880s, and then the further bad decisions made in every subsequent decade to ameliorate those bad decisions. It's the physical equivalent of maintaining 150 year old legacy code written in Linear A (if you will pardon the mixed metaphor) except that you can't just throw it out and start again because you'd have to demolish tens of thousands of houses.


"Good fortune" might be a weird phrase to use, but sure.

I think it's reasonably valid to use this excuse for, say, why the NYC subway is so far behind Tokyo's train system. Maintaining a system as old as NYC's requires so much money and time that there's little left over for upgrades.

But there's no excuse for a regional train like the Acela being so slow, expensive, and unreliable when compared to the Shinkansen. It's certainly difficult to do major upgrades in a constrained area like NYC, but upgrading tracks and signaling and the trains themselves in the mostly-open areas between (say) NYC and DC is a lot easier (even if you can't touch the last couple miles on each route due to city density, you can still make tons of improvements in between). And given that the US gov't gives Amtrak tons of money, and they still collect 2x as much as the Shinkansen does from passengers on a passenger-mile basis, it's shameful how poorly that money is managed.

There was an article posted on HN months ago that talked about per-mile transit construction costs in various countries, and how construction in the US costs so much more. I don't recall if there was a conclusion as to why, but it seemed to be a combination of gov't and union waste.


Japan has been running trains since the 1800s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport_in_J...

> Stage 1, from 1872, the first line, from Tokyo to Yokohama


>Of course, none of this is cheap, and neither are the tickets. It's not uncommon to find plane tickets cheaper than Shinkansen tickets. And even going 3 stations from Shibuya to Shinjuku will cost you 2 dollars on the Yamanote line. You could easily spend 10 dollars a day on a daily basis just getting around the city, and multiply that by the number of people who use the system, and it's a fortune.

I spent some time in Tokyo and found the subway both amazingly useful and cheap. But I also must compare it to the public transit in the US where I live (non-usable bus system), and that of San Francisco -- which was much more expensive and not nearly as well maintained.

When the usual for me is a $6 Uber one-way to a bar that's barely 2 miles away, it blew my mind that I would regularly get across Tokyo for ~$5-10.

I returned from Tokyo with a loathing of the overwhelmingly car-centric cities of the U.S.


Of all of the Asian subway systems I've used, Tokyo was the most expensive and most complicated. The fact that there are 3 different rail systems that are not seamlessly integrated is a pain. Not necessarily their problem, but I also found some stations that were very hard to use for non-Japanese speakers. Still, this is almost certainly better than every subway network in the US.


They are seamless for some time now. You pay with the same card and lines are connected. At least JR and Metro is.


"I spent some time in Tokyo and found the subway both amazingly useful and cheap"

I like getting around cities by public transit too, but Tokyo Subway system is rather complicated and expensive. You pay by distance in pretty granular fashion and there are several private companies operating, and not always compatible.

Seoul subway system is basically flat rate and much simpler, with free transfer to buses.


If you get the Tokyo Metro pass, it's 800 JPY 1 day/1500 JPY 3 day you can alleviate the cost. You can also register a popular route you use and get it highly discounted w/ passmo/suica.


Anything on your commute you will buy a pass for. But Tokyo Metro isn't JR or Odakyu. Transfers get expensive.

And all fares are by distance. Any commuter passes are based on point A to point B also.

They have a Japan Rail Pass that allows for almost unlimited travel within Japan, but you have to be a visitor from a foreign country. But I hear it's one of the best ways to tour Japan. Their trains are quite awesome.


Yeah, I did he JR Pass a year ago, and it was $249 for 7 days. I did some math after the trip, and if I had't had the pass, my Shinkansen bill would have been nearly 2x that. Plus I saved a bit here and there (on the order of $30) since I could use the local JR rail for free. The only transit expenses while there were when JR didn't have a convenient line and I had to use Tokyo Metro or the local trains in Kyoto and Osaka.


yes we did that last year, you have to prepurchase the ticket before you arrive and claim it (with your passport with its fresh new entrance stamp) at the desk in the airport station (at least that's the way it works in Tokyo)


  - absolute morons who do not make room for people trying to 
  exit the train
The lowest circle of hell is reserved for these people and bike thieves (and a few others).


...and people who stick gum underneath tables/chairs.


Hell for them is where every single surface for miles and miles on to infinity is covered in freshly chewed gum.


I think rather that they will be suspended from the ceiling for eternity, surrounded on all sides and partly covered by other gum-hiders.


the answer is in the question. Except for the technical breakdowns, all the other are caused by people. People stop doing stupid shit -> train can be on time. It's a cultural problem mostly. In Japan, you don't do the stupid shit (or you do it in private) and in exchange the train is on time. Every day!


Having disabilities, animals damaging infrastructure, garden-variety traffic accidents, and suicides are all classified as "stupid shit"?


No comment on "stupid shit" but culturally Japan has taken action to curtail things like rail suicide: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/families-fined-for-su...


Most train stations and tracks in Japanese cities are difficult to access if you're an animal, and tracks are all either underground or elevated, so traffic accidents don't come into the picture. Another commenter suggested that they can clear out a suicide in under 10 minutes, something that will take over an hour, at least in the SF bay area.

If you get far out of a city, things seem to be held to less of a strict standard, but trains still run frequently and mostly on time.

I've never witnessed someone with a disability getting on or off a Japanese train, so I can't speak to that.


did not mean it to be offensive. "stupid shit" is more like socially unacceptable in this context.


It's a media trope, and I have little reason to doubt it, but it's surprisingly hard to come up with decent statistics on average delays and punctuality for Japanese public transport beyond the Shinkansen (average delay < 1 minute).

DB (Germany) publishes a monthly average: https://www.bahn.de/p/view/service/auskunft/puenktlichkeit_p...

As does OEBB (Austria): http://www.oebb.at/de/rechtliches/puenktlichkeit-oesterreich

SNCF (France) has excellent data available: https://ressources.data.sncf.com/explore/dataset/ponctualite...

The statistics from SBB (Switzerland) are worse than I would have expected: http://sbb-puenktlichkeitskarte.mxm.ch/?lang=1

Roughly in line with the rest, but as I understand they designed their timetable to make sure that people can make their connection, and they report a figure[1] that does bear that out: https://reporting.sbb.ch/en/quality

Maybe somebody who speaks Japanese can find something similar for Japanese trains.

One thing I did find is the list for delay certificates of the Tokyo Metro. It's obviously not on time, all the time, "passenger arrengement staff"[2] nonwithstanding: http://www.tokyometro.jp/lang_en/delay/history/ginza.html

[1] "Customer-weighted connection punctuality", I do not pretend to understand what exactly that means

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pusher_(railway_station_attend...


Be aware, that the SBB in Switzerland measures delays differently than other Countries. They don't look at train departure times, but passenger arrival times.

E.g in Germany a train is considered delayed if its more than 5 minutes and 59 seconds late, whereas in Switzerland the percentage refers to passengers that arrive within 3 minutes and still have all the connecting trains available.

https://company.sbb.ch/content/news/de/2015/1/1201-1.html


Sounds like the Swiss way is the right way to do it.

And trains or buses that leave early are really annoying. NSB did it with my local bus some years ago. Got the drivers a lot of flack from passengers who missed the bus.


> Roughly in line with the rest, but as I understand they designed their timetable to make sure that people can make their connection

Hmm. Maybe that's something that's missed in the beancounter-ish environment of today's transportation networks... to allow for "slack times". Basically, have the train spend a minute more per station so there is always some inherent amount of time that can be used for stuff like a wheelchair user or a horde of kindergarden kids without impacting everyone else...

IIRC something similar was attempted and then rejected at a local bus line, because it would have meant to hire another driver and a bus, and the beancounters said it's too expensive.


In the end it all comes down to money and how you use it. For example, the Shinkansen is super punctual, but, as I understand it, it runs entirely on a dedicated network of tracks.

Introducing slack in the overall connection means having optimising for the average case at the cost of the ideal case, which is both more difficult to do and, perhaps more importantly, less likely to get exciting articles in the press. Having trains spend additional time at the platform is also expensive in terms of infrastructure and hence, again, money (there are only so many platforms and the tracks leading up the station are probably crowded).

I should probably stop rambling; it's not like I really know what I'm talking about.


I can assure you there are delays. Plenty and some of them 1h long. There are communities of commuters that register trains delays on web pages, everyday there's something. Just yesterday half of my office was empty in the morning because of 1h+ outage. True, Shinkansen is really strict, but normal urban lines? Cooome on, pleople, you wouldn't believe they never delay, would you? And if it happens... Oh boy, you don't want to be out there. Usually tracks are blocked so no more trains for the outage duration, and very rarely outage is covered properly by other lines (unless in central Tokyo). Then everyone rush to the bus station, which looks like can of sardines. Generally if you are entering the station in the morning and see ocean of heads flooding the gates (I mean, head next to head, and moving slowly or not moving at all) you can be sure that day will be an adventure. Oh, and don't forget to take outage confirmation paper which station's staff are handing to everyone so you can have excuse for being late at work. :)


IIRC the relatives of people who commit suicide on Japanese railways are charged for the disruption caused.


I'm not sure if this is true or not after looking around at news stories for a while. There was, for example, some uncertainty about whether or not a train line could sue the family of a man with dementia who was hit by a train [1].

However, even if train companies do sue families if their relatives get hit by trains, it doesn't change the fact that there are a LOT of suicides by train in Tokyo. For example, on one day in 2012 there were 3 separate suicides from jumping in front of trains [2].

I think the lack of delays in Japan from these types of accidents may have to do with very frequent train schedules and lots of redundancy in both alternate routes and alternate tracks.

[1] https://japantoday.com/category/national/family-of-91-year-o... [2] https://japantoday.com/category/national/man-jumps-to-death-...


This is one of those things that I heard on QI[1] that seems really plausible -- thus I did not fact check it -- but I'm not sure if it's just because of my Western cultural bias and prejudices.

Is it well attested/documented?

[1] Which, I think, should mostly be considered "entertainment" rather than particularly correct, though I do believe that they actually do strive for correctness. It's more that it has turned into a sort of "twist the words" game -- which is a shame.[2]

[2] It seems to have gained a little bit of a second wind with Toksvig in the current season -- as a sort of a more chat-about-random-things-prompted-by-question-X type thing. Which is nice. (Disclaimer: Only 2 episodes in.)


I found this Irish Times article:

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/families-fined-for-su...

as well as this 88-page study:

http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?art...

Apparently the fee is usually around $2 million.


$2 million. Wow.

I guess that would discourage anyone who's desparate enough to commit suicide (and still cares about their family) to look for other methods.

I'm not quite sure why, but I somehow find it very strange that a railway company[1] can administer a "fine" to people that may never even have interacted with it. Am I alone in this?

[1] Are they private entities in Japan?


2 Million yen, about $10-14,000 depending on exchange rate.


This I can confirm, a work friends family had to pay for the cleanup and delay room when her brother committed suicide via train.

I'm not in Japan at the moment so I can't ask the figure, but I believe it was in the region of 10-20k us(take that figure with a huge grain of salt, I'm going off of my memory, and still drinking my morning coffee).


What the f..k, how is that even legal?!


Japan elevates social responsibility above the self-interest of individuals.


!!!!

"The best way to stop people from buying a gun, is to kill a puppy once each time is sold"


> "The best way to stop people from buying a gun, is to kill a puppy once each time is sold"

That seems like it would ensure that the only people who buy guns are those with no regard for innocent life. I think you've invented the most perverse incentive ever devised.


> That seems like it would ensure that the only people who ... are those with no regard for ...

Sounds like what it takes to make it in politics.


Killing puppies is probably one of the few things that would disqualify you from office.


Each disposal of a puppy has to be maintained and paid by a tax on people that have no pets


A visit to Japan will be eye opening for you. The culture is unlike anywhere else I have ever seen.


Every time I've returned from Japan, I've always felt compelled to do my best where every I could. Sounds cheesy, but there is something about how well everything runs and has a place that makes you feel energised.

がんばって ^^


Japanese train suicide crews are actually so fast that they can clear the train to continue in 7 minutes.

Otherwise, they take train transportation VERY seriously. It is their main mode of transportation both local and in-country long-distance.


This is possibly a stereotype, but I've read that the rail companies discourage people from suicide-by-train with the argument that they'd inconvenience society.

(...which is awfully close to my (possibly equally stereotypical) opinion of why Japan has a suicide problem)


Not only that, but popular stations have barriers which are erected between the platform and the track. Whether these are there to prevent suicide or merely stop someone from falling onto the track, I don't know.


Oh, they do have some of these problems. The Chuo line (中央線, Chūō-sen) in Tokyo used to be famous for suicides. People would avoid the line, because it was quite probable that there would be delays.

But in general the trains run really well, and an avoidable mistake is really rare.


- people keeping the doors from closing

When I was in Tokyo I witnessed on two occasions a man try to dive through the doors at the last minute and get caught. The doors do not open again. Both men were in clearly obvious levels of pain, trying to get their arms or legs back. I for one had no intention of repeating their experiment. Warning to others: successful.

You get a cue that the door is going to close. They close about 10%, open again, and then slam shut. That’s the only warning you get (there may have been a beep too) but it’s really the only one you need.

They also have herders during peak traffic that either shove you in or warn you off. Like traffic cops but for the trains.


I had trouble getting a large hard-shell suitcase onto a train in Tokyo once, and didn't quite get it inside before the doors closed on it. They crushed it so strongly that it cracked before I could pull it through. I absolutely wouldn't ever want to get any part of my body caught in there.


Note: this is not about delays, it's about departing early. A delayed departure can have knock on effects (missing your next train), but an early departure can have immediate effects (not making it on to the train).


Western countries are more heterogeneous, more individualistic, and that includes highly variable selfishness and cluelessness. Japan is an island nation, much more isolated, homogeneous, people are much more on the same page about things often even without having explicit conversations about it. Somewhere in between, Scandinavian countries.

I think it's helpful to say "move, sloth" when people stand on the left side of an escalator, for example. That would be really insulting in Japan, but also it wouldn't ever be necessary. Actually, it's not even necessary in say, London. But in the U.S. there is absolutely zero imagination that someone might want to walk up an escalator, it simply does not even occur to most people.

My favorite: train is full, some people have to get out in order make room for people to get out, and then a bunch of assholes on the platform try to get into the train before the people who got out to make room but intend to get back on. And then these freeloading morons get all pissy when called out for their bullshit. Yes, morons. Like really selfish clueless morons. Again, I sometimes find it useless to ask them if they're stupid. It's somewhat polite, I'm not calling them stupid, and in my delusions I think they might ponder whether they are in fact stupid. But deep down I know I'm wrong, they're so stupid, they will not reflect on their stupidity or ever improve.

shrug


>I think it's helpful to say "move, sloth" when people stand on the left side of an escalator, for example. That would be really insulting in Japan...

Is there a place that wouldn't be insulting? Maybe Costa Rica.


Actually, it's an insult to sloths. A sloth can and does move, just deliberately and slowly. Able bodied people who stand on the escalator, don't move at all, are lazy. And when they're standing on the wrong side, they're wastes of space. As in the space they are taking up, is more useful than they are.

Sloths are badass.


Careful though, some areas (Tokyo and south), you stand on the left and move on the right. Caused my wife and I a fair bit of confusion one holiday(we live near Yokohama).


That's a small adaptation, once you've got the basic concept. Obtaining the basic concept appears to be highly variable and difficult.

Funny enough, in London, it's move on the left on an escalator. Pass on the right if you're a car. And mayhem if you're a pedestrian on a sidewalk: half the people dodge to my left in a head on conflict, the other half dodge to my right. I see no pattern (maybe locals vs foreigners).


> half the people dodge to my left in a head on conflict, the other half dodge to my right. I see no pattern

There is no pattern, but somehow my English brain can read the body language and avoid people 99.9% of the time.


Caused us quite the embarrassment as we weren't paying attention. (I blame my wife and mother in law.... Of course).


> say "move, sloth" when people stand on the left side of an escalator

That's insulting everywhere. Even if there was consensus about escalator etiquette (in Europe and America), that's still needlessly offensive.

People too often assume how other people need to behave and then freak out when they don't. Apparently, japanese can assume such behaviour, at least on the escalator.

Still, throughput is higher when you have two lines standing on an escalator, instead of leaving one line open for rushers. Though throughput would be even higher, if everyone stampeded up the escalator on both lines. So how SHOULD everybody behave?


If you stand on the left of the escalator you better be a tourist, some crimes are simply too grave for society to bear otherwise.


I think the thing most people are missing is that the lack of delays is due to having a system that has few delays :-) When I lived near London, my morning train into London had the following performance record: 75% of trains arrived within 10 minutes of schedule, 95% of trains that weren't involved in a cancellation arrived within 10 minutes of schedule. "Involved in a cancellation" means that either the train was cancelled, or was late because a previous cancellation made it late. So this means that more than 20% of the trains on the line were late directly due to cancellations (which is a horrible statistic -- my line was one of the worst).

But even when you think of that terrible statistic, when the next train comes -- there is not enough room. Because the platforms are not long enough and/or the signalling equipment can't handle it, they can only run trains of a certain length. When a train is cancelled, then it causes mayhem down the line as people cram to get on the trains to get to work. If you have 5 trains an hour, you only have to get to a delay of 12 minutes before you need to cancel a train. It all snowballs.

Basically, what I'm saying is that it's not like Japan doesn't have all the problems you've stated, it's that they realise that if they don't deal with the problems quickly the entire system breaks down. As others have said, some of it is cultural (Japan is a rule following culture so if you put up signs saying "This is the rule", then by and large people will follow it). But other things are just that the train companies realise that it is more than worth their while to pay for solutions to small problems in order to avoid the snowball effect. For example:

- There is a guard on the platform almost all the time. My dad actually dropped his bag on the tracks once and the guard quickly and efficiently retrieved it.

- They have equipment to inspect and clear the tracks. They use it regularly. Japan does not have large herds of animals in general, so animals are less of a problem it seems. But the shinkansen has very large fences all along the length and the track is regularly patrolled. My mother in law lives near the shinkansen tracks and I've seen them patrol the tracks several times a day.

- Virtually every street crossing is controlled. This makes a big difference.

- People with disabilities are looked after by guards at the station, not the conductor. When you go through the gates, you can ask for a wheelchair. The guard will go and get one. They will accompany you to the platform and make sure you get on the train. They will call ahead to your destination and a guard will meet you to take you off the train. Also, it's important to understand that the platforms in Japan are almost universally perfect so getting on and off the train is very easy.

- Technical breakdowns are rare because they spend money on maintenance. However, in the UK, I recall hearing that many of the problems are due to people stealing copper wire from the switching equipment to sell as scrap copper. Again, this is a cultural thing -- that kind of crime is just incredibly rare in Japan.

Trains are relatively expensive (about the same as the UK), but the main answer to your question is that they are managed really well. They use the money efficiently to stop small problems becoming big problems.


When I took the train from Narita into Tokyo the train would sit at stations for often 5 minutes and leave exactly when scheduled. Well over half the boarding passengers arrived in the last 30 seconds. Leaving 20 seconds early is a HUGE screw up in a system like that.


Then, there's the Houston bus system ca. mid 2000's, where the bus might leave several minutes early or several minutes late. Imagine not making your connection in 100+ degree Fahrenheit 90+ humidity while dressed for a job interview. Contrast this with the Minneapolis bus system, where you could time the busses at stops within 2 minutes in the central city, even while a foot of snow covered the ground. Both systems used essentially the same equipment -- same models and manufacturers.


Then there is the Wilmington, DE, bus system, where the posted schedule is completely made up. You just go and stand at a stop for 20-40 minutes until a bus comes. (It may or may not, sometimes the drivers decide to just clock out their shift early.)


This might be rational, actually.

Given the inherent randomness of traffic, it might just make more rational sense to have busses at 'intervals' instead of specific times.

Might make for more throughput.


That really only works if your intervals are relatively short, not where they’re 30-60 minutes, as in Wilmington.


Traffic isn't fully random. Rush hour peaks happen about the same time etc.

Handling that is an infrastructure and priority question. Given the political will one can build bus lanes and equip buses with a radio system which enables priority on traffic lights. In my hometown (Munich, Germany) this works quite well and most buses see mostly green lights.


There are many systems that just go with frequency rather than a schedule, which works more efficiently for routes with lots of trips. I’m surprised Japan uses a schedule, but maybe it’s just for inter city service and not say subways?


Which is fine as long as that frequency is frequent enough that waiting people aren't suffering, right?

There was a discussion on reddit recently talking about this issue in context of LA's buses. People don't mind if the bus is on time if there's one every 5-10 minutes but in non-rush hour times, having to wait 20+ min at a stop is too long.


If I'm remembering correctly, it's literally a schedule. They give you a minute-precision schedule on an electronic sign: http://images.freeimages.com/images/previews/c5b/jr-train-st...

In normal situations, the arrival time doesn't change, and the train pulls in within seconds of the right time. It is startlingly precise (to someone used to American transit), even during high traffic times in the middle of Tokyo.


There are schedules for the subways, but also a very high frequency for trains.

Off the top of my head, during busy hours for me going towards Tokyo there would be a train every 5-8 minutes. (And there are multiple lines, although I'm quite far out, so they condense as they get closer).


I mean, "the bus might leave several minutes early" describes the bus system in Vancouver, current day. I used to tweet them frequently because a bus I had arrived on time for was already long gone (evidenced by the complete lack of a line of people waiting, when normally it would be a long lineup).


> Then, there's the Houston bus system ca. mid 2000's, where the bus might leave several minutes early or several minutes late.

Yes, only Houston has this problem, not almost every single bus system in the world.


Minnesota always struck me as very... Scandinavian. Must try and visit in summer when it's not so cold.


> Contrast this with the Minneapolis bus system, where you could time the busses at stops within 2 minutes in the central city, even while a foot of snow covered the ground. Both systems used essentially the same equipment -- same models and manufacturers.

Aghh, I hate the Minneapolis bus system, I remember two times in the winter when the bus just didn't come, real nice when it's -8F outside. Or buses being 15 minutes late. But worse of all are the bus drivers themselves. However the Blue Line and Green Line follow the schedule much better then the buses. If your in Minneapolis your best off either driving, biking, taking LRT or catching a Lyft or Uber.


Well yes, the system didn't work nearly as well if you were going or travelling from farther out. That's yet another data point to indicate that it's as much about political will as it is about environment.


I wasn't far out, I was In Uptown a busy area of Minneapolis a couple miles south of downtown.


I was just 8 blocks north of the office I worked at.


Downtown? But do you live in Minneapolis or have you lived in Minneapolis because your profile says "Bay Area iOS Developer"?


I commuted between Minneapolis and Houston in 2008. I had an apartment in both cities.


Got to like all the down voters. Do any of you live in Minneapolis or have any experience taking the bus system there? I seriously doubt it.


I was just in Japan a few months ago, bouncing around Tokyo/Narita/Takasaki/Asahi and I experienced the exact same thing. Their rail system really does operate like clockwork.


Japan calls itself a "Machine Civilization" for a reason.


Fascinating. Are the passengers walking to the station and know exactly how long the walk takes? Or is it some closely timed transfer from another source?


> some closely timed transfer from another source

Often when different lines meet the tracks are organised such that the trains pull up together on either side of a platform: a so-called cross-platform interchange[1]. The passengers on either train then have 30 seconds or so to board the other train if they wish to change. Obviously this has to be precisely timed - if one train is late or the other departs early, the transfer can't take place.

It really is an amazing system, a wonder of the world. There's one part of the yamanote line that runs parallel to the keihin-touhoku line. In this section, the K-T line acts as an express, whereas the yamanote generally stops all stations. So as the lines meet, you'll have a bunch of people get off the yamanote onto the "express" keihin-touhoko - they arrive synchronously, then the keihin speeds past a few slow poke yamanotes, before arriving in sync again with a yamanote a few trains ahead of the original one, so people can switch back before the keihin diverges and goes off on its route. It's unbelievable, choreographed like a steel ballet. The best train system in the world bar none.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-platform_interchange#Tok...


I mean, what? There are often different companies running different train systems in the same city, and you will have a fair walk.


Are the trains all automated or manually run? Or some mix of the two?


It's not fully automated. The drivers are very disciplined (https://youtu.be/xzkU6tmdImY?t=639) although I don't know to what extent they have automation helping them.


Wow that's fascinating. Thanks for sharing!


If you get the same train to work every day you start to know exactly how long the walk takes. I can comfortably arrive at my local station (in London) in the right minute.


Ha! With the caveat being, your train will invariably be late :-)


Hey, Japan isn't that great either: https://www.dropbox.com/s/64g140pswnt6slb/7.jpg?dl=0


It'll usually leave on time from the main terminal station. Arriving is another matter.


Well, I live in London close to the end of one of the tube lines, and I try to leave home at 8:58 so that I can be on the platform when the 9:04 train arrives :)

Of course, being London sometimes the times are off and the system probably wouldn't work if the station was not close to the ends (less predictability due to random delays)


And London runs like a clock as compared to Rome or Paris which are more like ballpark suggestions rather than a schedule.


It really depends on the line/station. For example, the trains leaving Montparnasse are nearly always on time.


The rail schedule in Paris is just a guy smoking a Gauloises and shrugging.


Here in Ireland it's you, sitting at a bar, waiting for a pint of Guinness to settle.

As you stare deeper into the rising, darkening mist of the pint, you edge ever closer to it. Until the darkness obscures all else in your view.


The LUAS and DART aren’t half bad if you’re in Dublin at least.


The Luas is frequent which makes up for a lot, but the schedule is given as (every X minutes) and often misses that due to sharing with road traffic for large parts of the track.

Still better than bus eireann, where if you're getting on in the last 25% of the route, the timetable is often every hour, +/- 30 minutes, which means there could be a bus at any time and it's not likely to be the scheduled time.


Often it’s tranfering from another platform. If you take the same route regularly you get to know which carriage is best to board on the first train so that when you depart and cross the platform you’ll be on able to board the carriage nearest your exit when it arrives at the final destination.

There are lots of little hacks like this because trains always stop in the same place, and leave at the stated times.

Transfer times are often quite short too, particularly if it’s just walking across the platform.


Oh, yes. Definitely. The trains are extremely reliable in Japan, so people know exactly when they have to leave to catch the train they want. People also use smart phone apps that tell them the train schedules, so they'll often arrive right before the train leaves. Why would you arrive five minutes early and just stand around when you know the train is going to leave at exactly 7:32?


Strange to see this one voted gray--it makes perfect sense that with a very reliable system, people would modify their behavior (and possibly way of thinking, which is also interesting) accordingly.


I used to walk to Baltimore Penn Station for my commute. Without even trying, I'd arrive at the same minute almost every day. (My train, however, would not, because we're a failure as a civilization.)


Places in the world where public transportation works well and isn't a after thought, are indeed fascinating. It's strange how people support and pay for reliable service and do actually get it. A bit of a culture shock the first time I went overseas I was puzzled for a bit on how the train station actually knew all of the times and was confident enough to print them out.


> It's strange how people support and pay for reliable service and do actually get it

People in the U.S. pay for reliable service, we just get a lot less in return. The D.C. Silver Line cost $150 million per km, even though it's almost entirely above-ground and mostly runs through low-density suburbs along highway medians that were specifically reserved for it decades ago when the highways were built. Stockholm, in contrast, built a new line mostly underground through central Stockholm for about $250 million per km.


Most of the stations were only a single line, so no transfers. It seemed that the passengers knew exactly what time they needed to leave to make it to the station on time.


For my wife and her friends: yes, she knows exactly how long it takes her to walk to the station and will leave with only a minute to spare for the train to arrive.

I can't do that, I always worry I'll be delayed somehow haha


I just checked the San Jose light rail and it looks like they actually have a schedule, but I could swear a few years ago their weekend schedule just said "about once an hour".


Back in 2005 I visited the US for the first time, in San Diego for work with some colleagues. Being European we decided to take the bus from where we stayed to wherever we needed to go, as you do. Yes, we knew that the US was extremely car-centric, but after looking online and finding a public bus with an appealing route quite close to where we stayed (Mission Beach, quite nice!) we assumed we were just lucky.

That was an eye-opening experience. Firstly the realization that the schedules didn't really mean anything there (the bus showing up 30 minutes later than advertised), secondly the entirely insane experience on the bus itself - ranging from the behavior of the driver to that of the other passengers.

After that we immediately grabbed a taxi to a car rental place.


In some places in North America, especially because you have 'car culture' - you end up with a total other kind of class of folks on public transit. It depends on where you live.

Try taking the public transit in Monaco, for example - most do it. It's hilarious. Full gowns, diamonds, the works.


It's "funny" but in my area, people often block doors to let a bit more people jump in, disrupting the schedule in the other way.

What structure would help preventing this ?

doors set to stop people too far from trying to get in ?


One idea would be a sort of controlled-access staging area before the train that would admit roughly the capacity of the next arriving train. The doors to the staging area close as the train is arriving or the staging area is full, and the doors to the train don't open until the doors to the staging area area confirmed closed. It doesn't stop people from holding open those doors, but I think having 2 layers would help. That said constructing such a system in existing systems seems really improbable. You would have to build it in from the beginning.


fair point


Tokyo famously has employees in white gloves who will push stragglers onto subway cars during rush hours.


The train guys all compete with each other in Japan to be as close as possible to exactly arriving and leaving at the scheduled time.

You will often have a train/subway stop before it gets to the platform, just a 200 or 300 or so meters away, then start again.

I heard this was so that they would arrive at exactly the time they were supposed to arrive.

It's one of the things I miss most about Japan, a simply amazing dedication to their craft.


I have only seen a stop like this happen when there is another train at the station that has not cleared (or will not clear a track cross-over). The reason for a stop is announced by the conductor when the stop occurs. This happens every 30-50 trips on a busy line. I've never experienced an arbitrary stop to "maintain schedule" in the several hundred Tokyo train/subway trips I've taken.

I have experienced several long slow approachs in Zurich so that the subway could arrive and stop as the second hand ticked to 12.


They announce the reason for substantially all unscheduled stops. The most common is 信号待ち (waiting on a signal)。It is my impression that, in Japan, the lion’s share of those are discretionary on the part of the station staff for safety reasons. (This is not true of the US, where ops on railways are rather substantially more... organic.)

Source: uncle worked in dispatch room in US; many of my salarymen comrades were train buffs and they tried to convert me.


Well, that's nonsense: if you just arrive early and stand longer at the platform, everyone wins.


@gpvos - That doesn't always work. Sometimes a train will arrive early, but another train is scheduled to arrive before them, so they have to wait until the other train arrives and departs before they can enter the station, or they'll screw everything up. The train system in Japan isn't a single-line system, like the ones that exist in many cities. It is extremely complex, with express trains and trains that stop at every station all using the same platforms. The arrivals and departures have to be precise for the whole system to work.


Well yeah, I'm assuming the platform is free. Otherwise the train has to wait, obviously; that's the way it works in most places.


Is the platform guaranteed empty during a time when a train is not scheduled to be there? It seems to me there might be a lot of benefits to knowing that a train is either going to be there or not. Having a system that runs on time, and then having trains arrive when they are not supposed to is not necessarily an advantage.


An arrival jingle plays when a train arrives. If it plays early, people are going to rush thinking they're about to miss the train.

It's better to arrive exactly on time.


Well, that's silly too. They should play a separate pre-departure jingle 30 seconds or whatever before the train is expected to depart.


Hmm, I can imagine that having the jingle play automatically on arrival is easier and more robust to implement (no further human intervention needed) than your proposal. So that is a somewhat reasonable explanation.


A very long time ago I read a biography of Ronald Reagan, who had the same policy. He was punctilious about being on time, neither early nor late. He would arrive at an appointment 5 minutes early and then wait outside until the precise minute it was scheduled before joining the engagement.


I tend to do the same, unless the meeting place is somewhere you might go anyway (say a bar or cafe). It's always felt slightly impolite to me to arrive anything more than a minute or two early.


As a rule, I always arrive exactly 15 minutes late to people's houses, I'll even wait in the car. Chances are they are late preparing everything, taking a last minute shower or vacuuming.


Basketball coaches that would make me run a suicide for every minute that I was late to practice and not out on the floor ready to go, have forever instilled in me the habit of getting places at least fifteen minutes early.


Oddly enough, I tend to do that as well. Though that's more through social anxiety than wanting to be exactly on time (I don't want to be late but I don't want to make the meeting host feel awkward either).


I prefer to think of it as being considerate.


Meanwhile, people had to sit on a train that was stopped 200 meters away from the platform for no reason.


This happens in every country already, but generally you’re late when you’d get off, not on time.


It doesn't happen just for fun, it happens for a reason, such as the train is waiting for another train on the platform to leave.


You assume "the" platform. Often times, "a" platform is available, but pulling to a non-scheduled one would be disastrous.


> for no reason

Keeping trains on schedule is a reason. A very good reason to do something. It is unlikely that earlier arrival would have benefited anyone in cases like this, where they likely would have had to wait the equivalent time at a different transfer stop or signal, given that the whole system is timed so well.


How does waiting outside the station keep trains on schedule any better than waiting in the platform? And while people with appointments may not benefit from the train arriving earlier, people who are just going shopping / to the park / what-have-you definitely do.


I'm not sure it's any better at all! It's likely also a cultural difference, as I would prefer to use a system that would arrive early. I'm just saying that there are reasons a train system might like its trains to arrive on schedule, rather than early or late. Saying that there are "no reasons" to arrive on schedule is just silly. There are lots.


The train system is operating near peak capacity. Any deviation from schedule is going to ruin the entire rush hour. You get miles of traffic jams only with trains.


Propably because the platform is not yet free or they can't yet get a route to the platform (because some other trains need to pass through first)?


That's not what @socrates1998 said, though. The platform isn't in use if the reason the train stops is that the driver wants to arrive precisely on schedule.


A station becoming unexpectedly busy may have knock-on effects (e.g. taking longer to make your way through and thus missing a train), so it might not be a net benefit.


assumptions. If you can get out early and start the next leg of the trip, that's better than waiting inside the train and be locked to predefined gates.

The opportunities of an idling train, accessible at a platform greatly outweighs a non acessible idling train


Progression:

In Japan, people are nervous if a train departs early/late by 30 seconds.

In Switzerland, people are nervous when a train is 2 minutes late.

In Germany, people are nervous when a train is 10 minutes late (unless you are passing through Frankfurt, where you can expect 30 minutes)

In Italy, people are happy a train shows up (hello Naples).


To be honest, a train leaving early is a lot worse than leaving late. It means you show up at the right time, and you lose it - not cool at all.


Yes, by some quirk of fate I used to do navigation prompting for bus timed-course competitions; professional drivers on an unfamiliar route with a precise schedule to achieve. I'd shout-out current location, upcoming hazards and traffic controls, distance and time to next stop etc

They'd be penalised ( say ) 2 points for each late arrival but 8 for early arrival, and the same for being seen to stop ahead of the specified location.

I only did it for a couple of years but it was very interesting to watch the pros and made me appreciate the difficulties of maintaining schedules.


Very frequently, my train is up to 4 minutes early, and the doors open on the other side of the track, opposite the parking lot, so sometimes I'm totally on time, walking towards it after parking, but it's swooshing in, and I get to stand there, watch as others board...

So yeah, not cool.


Too true. I"ve had this happen at a crucial time and it was very annoying. I spoke to the station master and he said the trains are allowed to leave 20 seconds before the departure time "to keep the trains on time". What???? Sydney, Australia.


>>In Italy, people are happy a train shows up (hello Naples).

Didn't Italians hang the guy that made the trains run on time? What did they expect?


He never actually made the trains run on time. It’s a myth.


I know. Sometime a joke is a joke. Even if trains ran on time I wouldn't advocate fascism as a trade-off.


The S4 in Zürich is usually consistently 4-10 minutes late during evening rush hour.


S4 is part of SZU, who are vastly less reliable than the main Swiss train operator SBB. (Might have something to do with their exotic rolling stock...)


Zürich is the least-Swiss city though ;-)


In the USA, "High speed rail? What's that?"


And our commuter rail is a stream of helpful text alerts:

"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 5 minutes."

"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 20 minutes."

"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 45 minutes."

"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 90 minutes."

"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) canceled due to equipment problems."

And, of course, the text message saying the 7:10 is delayed by 5 minutes comes in at 7:20.


"Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 5 minutes." "Message 'Train 425 Dpt. Union Station (7:10) delayed 5 minutes.' delayed 10 minutes"


"You'll see in a few years" - California.


> "You'll see in a few years" - California, c. 1992

Fixed that for you.


You know were building a HSR now? It will take 15 - 20 years to complete, but we're building it.


I will believe it when I see it.

Assuming that some day I have a pressing need to travel from Bakersfield to Fresno, that is, because as I understand it there's still no commitment to construct the other parts. Train advocates assume that once the middle part is built the rest will inevitably follow, while train skeptics are looking forward to mocking the puny ridership numbers on the nowhere-to-nowhere line and saying "I told you so".


The skeptics have the advantage of being able to create a self fulfilling prophecy.


Indeed, which is why it was a terrible idea to go ahead with this doomed compromise.


LOL, they can barely manage to extend BART a few extra miles, and it takes decades and $billions to do it.


More like a few decades, and California gets to exhibit an unusually slow and expensive train.


In the Netherlands, several years ago they changed the rule for closing the doors: the rule used to be that (if the train is on time, which is actually the case about 90% of the time here) the train doors didn't close before departure time, so what happened was that the whistle was blown just before the departure minute and the doors started to close at the top of the minute or a few seconds after it. Now the rule is that the train should depart at the top of the minute, so everything is shifted about 10 to 15 seconds earlier. A change that really has no benefit for anyone. But I wonder what the rule for this is in other countries?


In my part of the UK the system is that the guard closes every door except the one he's leaning out of, typically around 5 to 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Someone then looms in to view at the other end of the platform upon whom the guard takes pity but inexplicably refuses to open the other doors and the passenger is compelled to run the entire length of the train to board at the guard's door.


Minutes or seconds? I'm talking about the case where the train is basically on time. Although from what I've heard, people in the UK don't have much experience with that... (j/k)


Seconds. Intercity trains might close the doors 30 seconds before departure, or 60 in some cases (like the starting station if it's a major one). Otherwise, 15 seconds is about normal, with one final door closed by the guard immediately before departure.

> Although from what I've heard

Don't believe everything you hear. After drinking tea, moaning is Britain's favourite pasttime.

Railways in Britain are very similar to the Netherlands:

https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/transportation-travel-...


you joke, but the train I get everyday into London is only on time if I'm a minute late. Otherwise it's pretty much always 2-10 minutes behind schedule.


In the UK "Doors may close up to 30 seconds before the advertised departure time" is regularly announced at most train stations.


The local train operator RBS (Regionalverkehr Bern-Solothurn, a metre gauge line, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regionalverkehr_Bern-Solothurn) usually leaves exactly fifteen seconds after departure time. Doors close usually five seconds before.

There's a local bus waiting at the platform of the Papiermühle stop. When the train arrives, people walk across the platform (five meters) and thirty seconds later the bus leaves. The bus has a tight schedule. Bus drivers usually sportily speed uphill to the end stop and downhill back, so people can transfer to a different train back to Bern already arriving.


This is definitely a luxury in contrast to airplanes whose boarding often closes 15 minutes prior to departure time (giving extra exta time to fit in standby passenger, etc).


One thing I want to point out is that if I am reading the reports correctly, the JR system is actually a very profitable corporation.

What would it take to get a profitable train system in the US?


Rail companies in Japan turn profit due to these factors: 1. Transportation by road in large Japanese cities is a complete nightmare. People really can't take the bus or drive if they want to arrive on time. 2. JR companies have been privatized in the 80s. They are free to set fares without political interference. 3. JR companies were allowed to shut down unprofitable lines to remote regions or demand the local governments subsidize them if they want to keep the lines running 4. Japanese rail companies own the land the stations sit on and were allowed to develop the stations into massive retail and office properties from which they earn rental income. Some rail companies even have department store subsidiaries.

Even then, JR Hokkaido, which serves the relatively sparsely populated Hokkaido region, has been unprofitable for a long time.


Intercity rail in the US was destroyed by an Iron Triangle. At present the passenger rail infrastructure is pitiful, since it hasn't had significant investment since about the 1950s. For example, back in 1999 Amtrak tried to resume passenger service between Louisville and Indianapolis by running freight and passenger cars on the same train. But since the track was so old, the trains were limited to 30 mph. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentucky_Cardinal

Try to imagine what the market is like for intercity transportation that is more expensive than driving or taking a Greyhound and yet more than twice as slow, and doesn't connect you to an effective intracity transportation network once you arrive. There weren't many passengers.

Rail transportation is very important in the US, but it's all for freight, which takes up a similar proportion of rail as passenger does in other countries.

Amtrak does run some profitable passenger rail lines in the US, including some places you wouldn't expect, like the Oklahoma City-Dallas line IIRC. There is an interstate connecting those cities, and the population density isn't exactly really high there so IDK.


People transport and freight transport are typically segregated on different tracks in Europe and Japan, allowing for each to be optimized (you don’t need huge trains to carry people if you don’t have to worry about colliding with heavy freight trains!). The USA is messed up because we never did that.


This is only the case for the high-speed rail systems in Japan, France, Spain and possibly Germany.

Other countries (e.g. Britain) share most tracks between passengers and freight, and therefore need to maintain the track to a very high standard, and run freight trains at a much higher speed than is seen in the USA. (e.g. 80km/h or 55mph for a coal train isn't unreasonable, or 120km/h = 75mph for a container train)


How do they handle safety? The reason American passenger trains are so huge is that they have to be mass competetive with freight trains who they share tracks with (all the time, it isn’t even time multiplexed).


Links are to British resources, since I only read English, and the UK has the safest railways in the world.

* Upgrading signalling systems at technology progresses.

The latest systems use in-cab signalling, so the driver can't fail to see a signal due to fog etc, and the train's computer is aware if a signal is missed and will stop the train. (These systems are decades old, but I've read that they're not common in the USA. It took a couple of major accidents in the UK for them to be installed.) [Search ETRMS rail, or in-cab signalling].

GSM-R, i.e. the railway version of the original European mobile phone system, provides a big red button. If pressed, all trains in the area are immediately stopped. A driver would press this if the train is expected to crash, or has crashed. That can stop an oncoming train on the opposite track. [Search GSM-R]

* Maintaining the track to a high standard

Running a measurement train [1] over the whole rail network regularly, which accurately measures "the track geometry and other features such as overhead line height and stagger, and the track gauge, twist and cant". Changes in this can show where maintenance is needed much earlier than a visual inspection, and the data can be inspected retrospectively if there is a problem.

Machine learning is probably the newest/next step for this [2].

* Thoroughly investigating any accident or "near miss"

An independent group [3] investigates accidents, with the aim of preventing future accidents rather than assigning blame. The most recent report [3A], for example, finds problems with project management and recommends, "Network Rail should review its project assurance process as applied to the CASR scheme". The depth of these investigations is comparable to most western countries' investigations of aircraft accidents.

Investigations like this are what leads to posters in stations saying "don't run down the stairs" or "mind the gap" announcements. Falling down escalators or under a train in a platform is much more likely than being involved in a crash while a passenger on a train.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Measurement_Train

[2] http://www.vision-systems.com/articles/print/volume-20/issue...

[3] https://www.gov.uk/raib-reports

[3A] https://www.gov.uk/raib-reports/serious-irregularity-at-card...


Even in Germany, much of the distance covered by their high-speed services aren't on the dedicated passenger-only high-speed track.


The Amtrak Downeaster runs right outside my window. During a 24 hour period, about fifty cars go by, almost empty, usually six or less cars per train.

Every single freight train that goes by has at least fifty cars, and they roll all night....


Massive population density increases.

JR also has a decent income from real estate. Train stations are in prime locations, and have a lot of foot traffic, so they build malls around them.


I suspect it's more of a cultural/political problem than a density problem. NYC has a considerably higher population density than Tokyo and has an abysmally expensive/inefficient rail system.

American public transportation systems, even here in the densest part of the country, are easy political whipping boys. Blame whatever you'd like (cars, highways, unions, politicians, etc), it appears that Americans don't care too much about fixing their transportation infrastructure if those fixes don't involve cars.


> NYC has a considerably higher population density than Tokyo

It's the other way around, Tokyo has higher population density:

New York City: Land area: 784 km2 Population density: 10,431 ppl / km2

The Special Wards of Tokyo: Land area: 619 km2 Population density: 15,146 ppl / km2


This comparison seems a bit unfair -- the special wards are the most densely populated parts of Tokyo. You should compare either New York City <-> Tokyo Metro Area, or Special Wards of Tokyo <-> Manhattan.


This is an interesting comparison in its own right.

Manhattan: 27,799/km2 and 59.13 km2

So that's denser than the overall special wards area, but also vastly smaller in both land and total population. Basically 1.6 million people vs 9.4 million people.

Probably significantly easier to have an extensive train network when you're consistently dense for that large an area.

But I would agree that the main reason the US's public transit infrastructure is lacking is just that we like our cars too much. I expect this to get even more pro-car in a self-driving-car world, too.


"This comparison seems a bit unfair"

It's not just unfair, it's completely absurd. Tokyo sprawls like crazy, and a big percentage of the population lives in the outer wards. The special wards are high density, but expensive.

As soon as you go outside of the Yamanote line, the population density of Tokyo falls dramatically (probably to Brooklyn levels). Take the train 10-15 minutes outside of that, and you find lots of detached houses and open land. Yet it's all "Tokyo", and this land area is counted when you see the huge population of the city referenced online.

Tokyo has become a fantasy for people in America who think that urban density solves all problems. Most of these people have not ventured outside of the tourist regions of the city.


To be fair, NYC technically includes Long Island. It isn’t obvious how to compare the two cities at all.


Only a small part of Long Island. Are you thinking of Staten Island?


> JR also has a decent income from real estate

This is actually a big money maker for them. Train stations are malls in many cases and JR makes a lot of money from them.


> Train stations are in prime locations

In Japan, in general, the closer your land is to the station, the more expensive it is. So, therefore, the stations are on the most expensive land of each area. ;)

Population density is also proportional, a lot of times, to the distance to the nearest station.


All around Europe train stations are turning into malls for the same reason.


One thing that prevents me from using the trains in my area is that driving takes 1/3rd the time to get to my destination. In Japan, riding the train is typically faster. Considering that I have to drive to get to the train station anyway, it just seems easier to drive to my destination.

Train schedules are another issue. The slow, stop-at-every-station trains in my area only come every 15 minutes (most often late), and the express train only comes every 30 minutes during the morning and evening commutes, and then every hour outside of those times. In Japan, if I miss a train, I know another will be along in 3 to 8 minutes, so it isn't a big deal. Where I currently live, if I miss the express train, I might as well go home and call it a day.

If the trains where I live came more often, were on time, and could get me to my destination faster than driving, I'd use them. Until then, it is just more convenient to drive, even though I absolutely loath driving.


It would take a complete overhaul of our political processes combined with a massively different transportation culture and an increase in population density. Lobbying at all levels maintains the status quo in the train industry, low population densities make a profitable human train transportation industry very difficult, and a culture that views those who use alternative modes of transportation as poor means even if the infrastructure was made, only the poor would use it to any reasonable extent.


Couldn't "the culture that views alternative transportation as poor people transportation" be solved easily???

We could just make the new Transportation super expensive at first and then gradually reduce the price until the correct amount of people can participate. This is essentially how TELSA got rid of the hippie stink from electric cars.

We could accelerate the transition even more by putting an Apple logo on the side of the train.


Increasing population density to Japan-like levels (and also removing governmental subsidy for roads, but that's a relatively small amount).

The Tokaido Shinkansen is around 520km long and connects Kobe (pop 1.5M), Osaka (2.7M), Kyoto (1.5M), Nagoya (2.3M), Yokohama (3.7M) and Tokyo (8.9M). Where could a US railway of similar length connect anything remotely like that many people?


Boston - New York - Philadelphia - Washington

San Diego - Los Angeles - Silicon Valley - San Francisco


There's no way you're connecting San Diego to San Francisco directly via 323mi of track, let alone via LA and SJ/MV.

That's a 520-550mi ride, buddy.


You can drop San Diego, even that would be enough, pal.


Still over the limit by about 70mi, friend.

And you cut out the second largest city in the state, to do so.


Depends on how you define 'connecting' cities, and we aren't talking about rigid boundaries on the railroad, just "comparable". And LA->SF route has enough people to be profitable, mate.


The Boston<->Washington line you mentioned there is one of the only reliably profitable lines for AmTrak.


And yet somehow it's more expensive and slower than flying (incl. getting to the airport and going through security).


The Acela is more expensive than a plane ticket, but the NE Regional is usually cheaper and just about as fast as the Acela. The Acela got dicked over by some NIMBY types pretty hard and doesn't really deserve the HSR appellation.


I guess it depends on which leg you're traveling but I've found flying from New York to Boston is almost always cheaper. You can get a flight from LGA to BOS two weeks ahead of time for under $60.


California is not nearly as dense as the area along the Tokaido line. More to the point, those cities aren’t as integrated as the eastern Boston-DC megapolis.


It doesn't need to be just as dense, it has enough people. SF area and LA have massive growing population and economy, don't you think high speed train connecting those in under 2 hours would have enough ridership?


> By 1987, JNR's debt was over ¥27 trillion ($280 billion at 2009 exchange rates) and the company was spending ¥147 for every ¥100 earned. By an act of the Diet of Japan, on April 1, 1987 JNR was privatized and divided into seven railway companies, six passenger and one freight, collectively called the Japan Railways Group or JR Group. Long-term liabilities of JNR were taken over by the JNR Settlement Corporation. That corporation was subsequently disbanded on October 22, 1998, and its remaining debts were transferred to the national budget's general accounting. By this time the debt has risen to ¥30 trillion ($310 billion in 2009 dollars). — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_National_Railways


My understanding is that the car manufacturers pushed the train system to convert to combustion over electric, as combustion was less reliable/costlier to maintain/etc.

Thus rail lost a significant competitive edge.

So basically blame capitalism.


The main issue is probably NIMBY.


Japan is adorable. In New York, we're grateful to have trains that work at all.


That's the only thing I pay big taxes to NY for - the convenient trains (what else is NY useful for?). And they can't even get that right!


I empathize with the MTA a bit. It's an old system that is probably underfunded and operated by a very strong union which costs a lot of money. There are still parts of the system that no manufacturer builds for anymore requiring staff machinists to custom make parts.

The signaling system is ancient and any real effort to modernize it (like on the L line) is fought by the union which considers modernization a threat to jobs.

Lastly, it's a system that runs 24 hours a day which almost no other train system can claim. finding times for the appropriate maintenance is very difficult and requires all the rerouting you tend to see on the weekends. People litter so much more in NYC than they do in other major cities across the world in my experience and litter on the tracks causes so many issues. And there's little to no time to clear litter daily off the tracks.

The system is underfunded, oversubscribed and outdated.


Totally understand. I can appreciate that, and acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining such a legacy system.

Just don't have the nerve to increase my taxes if you give that excuse though.


Try southern England - http://www.independent.co.uk/topic/southern-rail - it's comically bad.


To clarify, as that paints a fairly broad brush: Southern Rail cover a dense but geographically small part of southern England. Their reputation is rightfully poor, but in large part because their performance is exceptionally worse than most other franchises, I believe? To put it another way: large parts of southern England are served by reliable train operators (IMO and IME - source: 20+ years of commuting on South Western Railway, née South West Trains).


Sweden’s the same :/ I commute by train to work and every week I’m loosing minutes and sometimes hours.


In Sweden we're still struggling with leaves falling on the tracks. And snowfall. And "extreme" heat (30C).


We got the leaves problems in France too! At least the snowfall problem is much rarer.


The part that I admire is that they noticed the early departure and issued an apology without receiving complaints.

That demonstrates a lot more integrity than the operators of the public transportation network in my city, where they claim that declining ridership is a natural consequence of them improving their service.

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