Back home, I’d rarely use the train unless travelling to London or the odd trip to Leeds. During my time at the University of Nottingham, I’d frequently take the “National Express” coach service to get home rather than deal with Northern Rail’s incompetence. Not only was it quicker, but more importantly it was cheaper. However after moving nearer to Hiroshima last year,returning my lease car and leaving ten minutes from the station, I’ve been travelling to work by train everyday.
The keywords when describing Japan’s rail service is “efficiency” and emphasising the word “service”. Trains arrive on time and leave on time, which in turn means you have to be on time. They’re well-maintained, comfortable and most importantly, clean. I see Japanese people complain about one solitary Pepsi can being left behind, but if they took a look at the state of most UK trains they’d probably faint in horror. I recall travelling down to Oxford and refusing to use the toilet because of the stench erupting from the train’s bowels. It was like that for the entire three-hour journey.
I guess some my admiration has to come from Japanese passengers. No-one is shouting, playing music through their crappy speakers, or sprawled across two seats. Japan’s cultural identity of courtesy and politeness certainly alleviates the problems of untidiness and noisiness. But even still, taking the train isn’t the tedious inconvenience that I feel it is back in the UK.
One of the crowning jewels of Japan since 1964 has been the Shinkansen. The Shinkansen or bullet train is one of the most efficient and speedy transport networks in the world. Traveling between 150 to 200 miles per hour on its 1717 miles of track, it’s quite the experience, and really showcases how much better Japan’s rail service is compared with the UK’s. It’s clean, spacious and there’s a sense of luxury especially on the Sakura Line. Staff bow when they enter a carriage and leave a carriage, the toilets aren’t wrecked and the seats recline. The only downside to the service is that it’s a tab bit expensive, but it’s worth it.
This is all not to suggest that Japan’s rail network is invulnerable to delays and cancellations. I’ve experienced may fair share of delays. But what’s different is their attitude and handling of such situations. Hiroshima’s Sanyo Line, which is my line, is surprisingly prone to delays due to snow and heavy rain. But announcements offer updates frequently, they provide information on alternative transport methods and they offer a densha chien shoumeisho (Train Delay Certificate) that you can pass to your boss. The efficiency of the rail network is so important to Japan that delays will make the news and the rail companies enforce strict disciplinary action on employees to ensure a smooth and on-time services. It’s almost as though the railway companies feel a genuine responsibility to care about their customers; a rarity these days.
I have one final criticism, Japan doesn’t understand the concept of “return tickets” when compared back home. In the UK, the difference between a single and a return ticket is minute. Yet here in Japan, you’re essentially paying for two single tickets. Otherwise, it’s a near perfect system that I wish we had back home.
Note: If you’re travelling to Japan and plan on using the Shinkansen service, I’d highly recommend that you purchase a Japan Rail Pass. It saves you a lot of money.