Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Run a Railroad

I've been riding the rails in Japan for three weeks now. Tomorrow I head back to the US, so it's time to put a few thoughts together.

In well over 8,000 miles and 150 trains, none have been late leaving the station, and only one has been late arriving - it was a shocking four minutes late, apparently due to congestion. This has involved all six of the privatized JR (Japan Rail) group companies, plus four of the many smaller railways. Maybe I'll be able to work out the percentage of reliability when I've cataloged details of the entire journey.

My focus for this post is, How do they do it? Here are my observations:
  • Investment in infrastructure: Compared to many other countries, Japan spends little for its military. Instead, its citizen's tax money goes to education and infrastructure. It's not just their famous Shinkansen "bullet trains" that get the investment. All four main islands are connected by a long bridge or tunnels. Mountains (said to cover four fifths of Japan) are drilled full of innumerable tunnels, and valley are spanned by trestles. Few mountain lines have track speeds less than about 40 MPH, and many are higher. Roads are kept in very good repair, and there are expressways (with high tolls) in most parts of the country; more are being built.
  • Meticulous maintenance: right of way is well groomed and ballasted, using mainly concrete ties. Surprising to American railroaders is the use of jointed rail almost everywhere except on Shinkansen lines (though to give me the lie, I happen to be riding over a rare stretch of non-Shinkansen welded rail in Hokkaido as I write this). Older rolling stock is lovingly cared for and works reliably. Squads of cleaning staff descend on every train when it reaches its destination.
  • Precision operation: every task on the railroad has a ritual. Watching conductors, station masters, engineers, and even train attendants, is like watching a combination ballet and military drill. All personnel are in uniform, from the station-master, with his flag and red-banded cap, to the track workers in their regulation coveralls and hard hats. Every train attendant bows to the passengers when entering or leaving a coach. Engineers, except on the ever-popular steam excursion engines, always wear white gloves. Every signal is acknowledged with hand gestures and a verbal response. Every time-point is met by a white-gloved finger pointing to the engineer's railroad-issue pocket watch, the time column and then the location on the train order. Every engineer, whether on a large, fast train or a small, slow one, has his train orders in a special, illuminated holder mounted just to the right of the forward window. If all this sounds a bit "over the top", consider the spectacular results.
  • Safety first, last, and always: Every vehicular grade crossing is protected by crossing gates. That even includes farm tracks and many foot paths, on main and branch lines. (Shinkansens are entirely grade-separated.) The gates close off the intersection completely - no "snaking" through a closed crossing. As a result, whistles and horns are seldom heard, which is good since there are so many trains. Hard hats and safety glasses are always worn by maintenance workers, and those who work in dark places wear vests with strings of flashing red lights like those we use to decorate for the holidays. All trains have Automatic Train Stop. When approaching a red signal, a loud bell trills briefly in the cab, followed by a continuous tick-tock like a turn-signal on steroids. This gives the engineer time to stop gently; no doubt emergency brakes would be applied if the train passed the signal, though I never saw that happen. Even track workers (in Hakodate, at least) have a drill for crossing yard tracks: stop, look and point right, look and point left, and if the track is clear in both directions, point forward before crossing the track.
  • Spectacular scheduling and dispatching: When trains meet on single-track lines, it is almost always at a station, where the line splits briefly into two; trains from opposing directions arrive within a minute of each other. (I observed one exception, when two rail-busses met in a small mountain village. The southbound rail bus had a 25-minute wait, which was part of the schedule.) On Shinkansen lines, which are all double-track and very heavily scheduled, faster trains flash past slower ones while the latter are stopped at stations, where the way widens to four (or more) tracks. Seldom did I observe a slower train stopping for more than four minutes, and that was usually to allow two faster trains to breeze past.
  • Continuous R&D: Not only is JR Research testing a maglev train, but less spectacular every-day trains are being developed. The busy Chuo line in Tokyo, which runs trains every two minutes, uses a high-tech computerized control console for the engineer (who still uses the hand-gestures!). Several types of electric and diesel tilt trains have been developed to cut down schedules in less densely populated areas. Hybrid diesel rail cars are being tested on a mountain route in Nagano Prefecture. And the Shinkansen routes are being extended north into Hokkaido (I can see the construction work under way as I write this) and south into Kyushu.

OK, so those are some details of how they do it. Underlying the details are culture and attitude. Japanese culture, as you probably know, is based on strict hierarchy and following the rules. To illustrate this: an elderly acquaintance told me about a friend of his who was a naval officer during World War Two. After Japan's surrender, he was assigned to command a Japanese cruiser for a few months until it was decommission. The full Japanese crew of about two hundred remained on board, but he was the only American. He never had a moment's trouble from the crew, who obeyed his orders with alacrity. The Emperor had commanded all Japanese to cease their resistance and obey the Americans, so that's what they did.

I suppose there is a certain amount of security for individuals within such a system. You know exactly where you stand, and you need only think about your own small part of the team's task. It's certainly not the spirit that made America great, but it certainly works very well for Japanese railways.

The attitude is not what you might expect. Every railway staff member seems to take great pride. I'm not sure exactly what aspect they take pride in. It's more than their immaculate uniforms, of course. Is it their mastery of their part in the railway ballet? Is it their enviable performance and safety record? Is it their smoothly-running equipment, whether new or old? Is it because of their place in the race for higher-speed rail? (They're not in first place at the moment - France is - but they're definitely "in the running"!) Even the ubiquitous train attendants (all of whom are young women) seem to smile with genuine good-will. I never saw any hang-dog looks or repressed surliness, in spite of the fact that they work long and hard. They set a standard which would be difficult for American flight attendants to equal. I'm too young ;-) to know how they'd compare with the Zephyrettes.

So, what can we conclude? First, if we wanted to run precision railways in the US, it would have to be done differently. American railway personnel would never bow when entering a passenger coach, nor do I think they should! But would we be ahead to require some of the "ballet": the gestures, the verbal acknowledgements? Or can we rely on automatic equipment to prevent disasters? I doubt that we could rely on anything but attitude to keep the trains running so precisely. I wish our dispatchers and schedulers would take a course or two from JR.
Or how about this: Invite one of the JR or private Japanese railways to invest in US railways, and have a hand in determining how they are run. (I'd much rather see that, than have US railways taken over by hedge funds and investment bankers.) More on that later...

By the way - I forgot to mention one other thing. Japanese railways make a profit, and have not raised their fares for at least twenty years. How's that for running a railroad?


  1. PS - I was writing this blog entry on my antepenultimate train (Hakodate to Hachinohe). Guess I shouldn't have bragged about the on-time record of Japanese trains, because this one was 29 minutes late to its destination. Perhaps the conductor's announcements explained why this was happening, but I couldn't understand a word he said. The train crept along at about 30 MPH for several miles, apparently encountering a long string yellow signals. The conductor was very apologetic, holding his hat over his chest and bowing as he went from one passenger to another to ask about connections. When we finally arrived at Hachinohe, where we were to transfer to the southbound Shinkansen, a row of six railway officials was waiting at the gate to issue new reservations to everybody. We were quickly assigned seats in the next Shinkansen, which left about 45 minutes later. Late trains are unusual, but at least JR knows how to handle them.

  2. It's not only in the railways that we can see the kind of discipline and teamwork that Japan has always uphold. Their strict standards in the implementation of rules are actually a by-product of their ancient traditions and customs that have been handed down from generation to generation and have influenced almost all aspects of their lives including their technology. It has always been apparent in their martial arts where self-discipline and respect to others are top priorities. I am not a Japanese but I have come to love Japan because of these things and I believe that other nations can learn something from these simple people.


  3. Right you are, Liz. And from the photos on your blog, I'm reminded of one factor I forgot to mention: scrupulous attention to detail! The incredible tiny details on the katana you show illustrate this. 8-)>