Japan: The rail system

· travel ·

Part 2 of a series

(Read Part 1)

When I'm not fuming over the pathetic mess that we in the UK are forced to call a railway system, I really like train travel. So I was excited to be taking several train journeys while in Japan — one of them on the bullet train or shinkansen.

As I mentioned before, PD had lived in Japan for a while. Without her, I think that GS and I would have been a bit baffled by the railway system. It isn't that it's particularly complicated (there's a helpful guide here), but there are enough quirks in the system that novice travellers would be confused. For a start, buying the tickets at Osaka wasn't straightforward as the ticket machines had few labels in English. PD did really well with resurrecting her Japanese, and we all ended up with tickets to the right places. What GS and I would also not have known is that there are different categories of train which correspond roughly to different speeds of service. Not surprisingly, the faster services come at a premium, and you have to pay a supplement to the fare. There are also supplemental fees for seat reservations, but we opted for unreserved seats on the medium speed of service.

Then there's the queueing system. This is actually an excellent idea; each train lines up precisely with certain spots on the platform when it arrives, which correspond to the doors for each carriage. There are signs on the platform and painted lines which show you where to queue for each carriage. Since we were in unreserved seating, we had to find the unreserved carriage stop, and since we don't smoke, we also wanted the non-smoking unreserved carriage. That done, we stopped faffing around and getting in people's way and waited for our train.

The frequency of the service is excellent, with trains turning up every ten minutes or so; more often on busier lines. Sure enough, just before the appointed time, the sleek, pointy-nosed train glided up. There's plenty of legroom in the seats, and despite the slightly dated upholstery, it's very comfortable. As we left the station, I looked at my watch and commented with mock horror that we were a minute late leaving. In fact, it turned out that my watch was a minute fast, and we left precisely on time.

It's almost incomprehensible for someone used to the British rail system, but the average delay for the shinkansen over a year is less than one minute. Unbelievably, that also includes times when the service has been stopped for an hour or more because of a typhoon or earthquake. It's like another world.

We were also very impressed by the ticket collectors and refreshment trolley operators. When they had finished in a carriage, they stopped at the door, thanked everyone for their co-operation, and bowed politely. It's hard not to have a rather superficial impression of a place after only a week, but I definitely got the feeling that people in the service industry genuinely like their jobs and feel pride in what they do. Again, hard to imagine that happening in the UK.

As their name suggests, the bullet trains are fast. Really fast. Even though we weren't on the fastest service, we whipped along at a furious rate but the ride was very smooth and stable. My only complaint is that the journey was over too soon.

On Friday, I'll have to get back on to a Central Trains service again, and the comparison with the Japanese rail system is not going to be favourable.