Timely Trains

Summary: Japanese trains are fast, frequent, efficient, and punctual. This post explores just how punctual and how they pull it off.

Getting around Japan is easy without a car. An extensive network of high-speed trains, commuter trains, local trains, and subways will meet most visitors’ travel needs. Every time I come to Japan I marvel at the efficiency, timeliness, and frequency of these trains. If you miss your train, another is likely to come within 5 to 15 minutes.


Some of the places we stayed were within a block or two of the trains, and although we heard the clickity-clack of wheels on tracks and sometimes the musical tones played at each station, I never heard a train horn or whistle; something you hear, it seems, a mile or more away from trains in the US.

Note the safety wall on the right side and the short fence on the left side

I suppose the fact that (it appears) all the rail lines are barricaded their entire length, minimizes the need to warn the lost or confused pedestrian, child, or cyclist. Even railroad crossings for pedestrians or bike paths have their own gates that close whenever a train approaches. Given the frequency of the trains, investment in all these safety fences and crossing gates makes sense.

I got to see just how precise even a slower, local train is in Japan. Riding a local train from Inuyama back to Nagoya, my brother and I found ourselves in the first coach of the train, standing right behind the engineer. His simple dashboard had various gauges and meters as well as a large handlebar throttle which supplied power as well as applied the brakes.

Bus driver checking his mirrors

At every stop, he went through a graceful, consistent choreographed series of hand gestures with his white-gloved hands. After watching for some time, I was able to figure out what he was doing. (This gestural dance, though much more complex, reminded me of one I’d observed last year performed by a city bus driver).

Timetable and clock

In the upper left corner he had a tiny clipboard with a clock. I figured out that this was his station list and timetable. Next to each entry were two times, which turned out to be the arrival and departure times for each station. A little red horizontal marker indicated the current station, and was manually slid down a row as he departed from each stop. Here was his basic sequence:

  1. As the time neared for departure, he’d point at the clipboard, then at the clock, double-checking the time.
  2. Upon receiving an all-clear message from the station (either a blown whistle from a station guard or an announcement over the PA), he’d pull the throttle handlebar toward himself to apply power to the wheels and the train would pull away.
  3. Noting the speed limit posted on poles beside the track, he removed power before reaching maximum allowable speed, and the train, moving on inertia alone reached and stayed within a couple kilometers per hour of the speed (usually between 70 and 100 kph).
  4. As semaphores (signal lights) came into distant view, he’d point at each, verifying they were green for “go.”
  5. He never tapped the foot pedal to sound his horn except to alert rail workers alongside the tracks.
  6. As he neared a station, he’d point to his schedule, point to the clock, and push the handlebars forward with both hands to apply the brakes and slow the train down to a stop at the next station.
  7. While stopped at the station, he’d slide the red marker down a step and point to the departure time and the clock.

At first I assumed he was arriving and departing by the minute, but on closer inspection, I saw that seconds were indicated on his timetable. On the clipboard featured above, you can see the arrival time is 44 minutes, 20 seconds, with departure at 44 minutes, 50 seconds. In general, he arrived and departed within *10 seconds* of his timetable’s listing.

I assume this was one of the more manual and primitive configurations for a train engineer. Indeed, there were some local trains and subways where the automatic doors remained closed to allow the engineer to back up the train a few inches before they opened.

I’m certain the faster trains, especially the Shinkansen, rely on sophisticated computer and messaging systems to keep them on time and stop within the tight, required tolerances. Perhaps there is little human intervention beyond having extra sets of eyes on everything.

Regardless, in comparison to what I’m used to at home, where trains can run minutes or even hours late, a manually operated train that stays within seconds of its schedule is really a marvel.

4 thoughts on “Timely Trains

  1. Toby – Last month I went to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. They have a mock-up of the Shinkansen “cockpit”, with a big video screen in front of it. I got to “drive” the train for about 5 minutes. It was fascinating.


  2. Japanese comedian Yuriko Kotani does a stand-up comedy routine in Britain comparing punctuality of trains in Japan to those in the UK. Pretty funny. It concludes with one swear word in case that matters to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s