The world’s biggest train set

Tokyo has the world’s biggest train set: there are more than 100 rail lines that cut through or under the city and the system has more than 40 million users each day.

In a culture where gadgets have long had mass appeal and which spawned the world’s first camera cell phones and electronic dictionaries, vacuuming robots and intelligent toilets, the rail system in Tokyo is the country’s ultimate electronic marvel. Sexy high-speed, long-distance bullet trains aside, the rail system’s efficiency belies the complexity of hundreds of interconnecting city trains and stations that accommodate millions of commuters — every day some three and a half million of them pour into and out of Shinjuku Station alone.

On daily peak hour commutes, it’s easy be fatigued by the push of the crowds and their intersecting movements, the claustrophobic atmosphere and at times nauseating discomfort of the carriages with their crush of bodies. (Michael Wolf has created a poetic series of photographs that captures this perfectly.) Yes, the daily commute is a grind for many commuters, whose travel adds an hour or two each way to their already long workday.

Yet someone experiencing the daily Tokyo commute for the first time might marvel at the clockwork precision of the arriving trains, or at a peak hour schedule that sees trains arrive at stations within a couple of minutes of each other. A novice may be impressed by the reasonably orderly manner in which rivers of passengers spill onto platforms and down stairways to connecting train platforms or ticket gates. They may be fascinated to see a near empty platform fill to capacity in time for the next train — and see the process repeat itself again and again. They could admire the superior smart card technology that allows the ticket gates to smoothly process so many entering and exiting commuters; or the intricately arranged gates, stairways and tunnels that connect the lines and trains of different railway operators.

They could wonder at the near spotless condition of the trains and carriages and the general cleanliness of the stations; wonder at the markings on platforms positioning passengers near the doors of arriving trains once they have stopped, or the signs that guide passengers to carriages that will stop near their preferred exit at the station of their destination. Then there are the ticket adjustment machines, conveniently placed near the ticket gates to allow passengers to ensure they pay the correct fare, should they have bought the wrong ticket at the start of their trip. They may find it hard to believe that railway staff issue late passes for workers whose trains are delayed for any reason.

Efficiencies noted, someone new to Tokyo rail travel would also be delighted to see that many stations, especially the main hubs, stations like Tokyo and Shinagawa, have food stores, restaurant parks and shopping centres — much like airports, only better. They would smile at the banks of lockers available at all stations for storing luggage or purchases. Visitors would be happy to discover that Japan Rail has rolled out free Wi-Fi access at a number of central stations. They would soon get used to the sight of the selection of vending machines that sit on almost all platforms. They would make use of the small kiosks that are like oases on many train platforms, or of the juice bars or tiny noodle bars that can be found on others. They would surely explore the multi-story shopping malls, with their myriad shopping and dining options, that are attached to many larger stations. They would pause and think why isn’t it like this back home?

Train travel, like many cultural experiences in Tokyo, is really something special and it’s no surprise that the city has a dedicated train otaku subculture — witness the hordes of people armed with their cell-phone cameras or telephoto lenses and the buyers of paraphernalia at events such as the launch of a new high-speed train or the closure or a station. It’s just that in time it’s easy to forget this when the novelty has worn off and you’re being squeezed along by the push of an exiting station crowd or compressed into a corner of a train carriage.

A version of this piece also appeared on sayhi.co.