Tokyo Rail Network

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Nobuyuki Sato

    Main guest

    Nobuyuki Sato is a leading figure in the world of transport policy, particularly relating to railways. Alongside analysis of rail-industry management approaches and transport projects, he also evaluates proposed new systems and offers advice about them.

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February 23, 2017

Tokyo Rail Network

*You will leave the NHK website.

Tokyo’s rail network ranks among the most complex transport systems in the world. Even residents of New York, Paris, London, or other cities known for extensive rail systems may initially find Japan’s capital a somewhat daunting prospect to navigate, but every effort is made to ensure that the commuter experience is as smooth as possible.

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Tokyo’s rail network is among the world’s most complex.

Maps at each station clearly display station names and fares in Japanese and English. In many cases they also offer information about the time between individual stations on a given line, and even the best position to board your train to be as close as possible to the required exit at your destination. Various lines have now begun to implement a simple system of code numbers to further help visitors to identify each station without having to learn its actual name.

To eliminate the need to jostle for position as a train pulls into the station, carriages stop with their doors in careful alignment with special markers on the platform. These spots are also accompanied by instructions on orderly queuing, which the vast majority of Japanese passengers conscientiously observe.

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As trains pull into a station, they stop with their doors in perfect alignment with special markings on the platform.

Even when boarding a rush hour train that is packed like a tin of sardines, unseemly disputes between passengers are rare. Though it scarcely seems necessary, onboard announcements remind people to show consideration for fellow commuters as they enter and exit the cars. 

Platform announcements too are increasingly offered in English, mirroring the system used in Japanese with a male voice offering information for one direction of travel and a female voice for the other. Regular viewers of NHK World TV may even be pleasantly surprised to recognize one or two of the English-speaking voices!

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This station departure board displays some of the various rapid and local trains that are a feature of Tokyo’s complex rail network.

Fares compare favorably with equivalent travel services in some other metropolises, and to save the hassle of exiting the ticket barriers to buy a new ticket when transferring between lines operated by different companies, there are special transfer tickets.

Alternatively, easy-to-top-up commuter smart cards allow for unfettered movement between lines. Some cards even top up automatically from your bank or credit account to ensure you will never be caught short of charge when in a hurry, and a similar service is also available via mobile phone.

While this edition of Japanology Plus focuses on the rail services in Tokyo itself, you can expect to enjoy most of the features outlined above wherever you are in Japan.

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At each station the conductor observes a series of careful checks.

Though some rolling stock is relatively old, every train is impeccably well-maintained, with not a sign of the neglect or graffiti that is sadly all too common in some other countries.

As we saw in an earlier edition of Japanology Plus, the shinkansen bullet train is famously subjected to ultra-scrupulous cleaning in a matter of minutes at terminal stations. While other trains may not be tidied in so public a manner, such attention to detail is a feature of Japan’s entire rail network.

In contrast to longer-distance services, Tokyo trains offer nothing in the way of onboard refreshments, but many stations on overground lines have at least an on-platform noodle stand for busy commuters to grab some sustenance mid-journey. Even stations without such facilities will often have vending machines offering hot and cold drinks.

If you do take time out for a break on the platform, you seldom have to wait long for the next service. And while you're waiting -- assuming you have time before your train arrives -- you might like to search out a platform timetable showing all the departure times. You'll be amazed at the number of scheduled trains that can be squeezed into a single hour at the busiest time of day!

*You will leave the NHK website.