Having parents who divorced in my early childhood, I think it’s fair to say that I have experienced an on-again, off-again relationship with trains. From the days of getting on at York, off at Stevenage, on at King’s Cross, off at York, much of my travel experience as a youngster was viewed from out of a train window. I think, then, it’s also fair to say that I have developed a slightly nostalgic view towards the dysfunctional British transport system, with its many intricacies and delays, I took this as just simply part of life.
I later experienced other countries’ train systems – I was able to compare the London underground, with its expensive fares and dirty carriages, to the Berlin U-Bahn, which seemed cheap, efficient, and carefree in comparison. Then I started learning about Britain’s political relationship with its railways – the train system is a complicated mishmash of public and private ownership; in many cases, profit is put before basic improvements and functionality.
By far, my biggest wake up call was visiting Japan with my husband on our honeymoon. We bought JR passes, and travelled the Shinkansen, and the Tokyo metro for the week and we were pretty taken aback by what we found. While it’s true that JR passes offer excellent value for money that’s not available to locals, the tickets themselves were comparable to the prices of their British counterparts, but offered a lot more bang for their buck (or Yen), so to speak. Here are some of the things that we noticed:
All of the trains that we travelled on were spotless. No gum, no dirt, nothing – they practically gleamed. This may seem like a small point, but when you’re travelling for several hours, this can make a huge difference to your morale. This was contrasted when we arrived back in Britain and had to take a train back from Manchester at 1am – it was filthy.
Compared to their British counterparts, there was a lot more leg room. For a short person like me, I could easily stretch my legs out quite far before they hit the seat in front. In fact, there was so much leg room, that we were able to fit our huge suitcases in front of our legs!
Throughout our whole time in Japan, not once did we experience a delay. In fact, the average delay time of a Shinkansen is believed to be less than one minute! The information on the announcement boards was always up to date, and our journeys were as pleasant as they could be.
In Japan, most of the profits from the railways get put back into the railways which, in turn, creates better innovation, like the Shinkansen. Originally introduced to Japan in 1964, the Shinkansen has never stopped evolving and getting faster.
It goes without saying that every country has its pros and cons, but Japan’s railway system and efficiency is definitely a pro. It can also demonstrate something to Britain about how rail networks are run – we can, and should be doing better. When it comes to essential public services, profit margins should not come before people.