Taking A Look At Japan's Complex Train System
Sakichi Toyoda came up with an entire manufacturing philosophy not long after founding the Toyota Motor Company. It’s a system meant to eliminate inconsistency and waste, and to make sure workers never become overburdened. He called it “just-in-time production,” and if you ever want to see the embodiment of it, catch a Japanese bullet train.
As it pulls into Tokyo Station on a Tuesday morning, the snout-nosed lead car comes to a stop almost silently, with none of those screeches and wails of typical trains. Operators in military-like uniforms file off. Passengers dart toward escalators. And then a team of workers seems to appear from nowhere.
The cleaning crew is color-coordinated—women in pastel pink, men in Easter egg blue—from head to toe. They dash between rows of seats, employing mops, dust wands, trash bags and spray bottles. In three minutes, they finish. The first one off stops just outside the door and then, as each worker gets off, they bow to each other ceremoniously, a recognition of a job well executed, two minutes early, just in time.
Passengers get on next, into their assigned seating up front or moving in an orderly fashion for a spot in coach. Two more minutes pass before the train is pulling away from Tokyo, working up to its 200 mph top speed—with Mount Fuji hiding behind the fog to the west, endless suburbs, then rice paddies. And then a journey that used to take more than six hours breezes by in just over two.
Even factoring in weather and natural disasters, the bullet train has an average delay of exactly 36 seconds. It is a model of Japanese efficiency, of Sakichi Toyoda’s “just in time” philosophy. And for us, back in mass-transit-challenged South Florida, it’s a symbol of what could be.
Aside from the unbelievable effectiveness, there’s also something quite relevant we can learn from the Japanese bullet train. It’s one of several privately owned railways. The private trains tie into the publicly owned systems seamlessly, with commuters easily going from bullet train to subways to buses.
Back home in Florida, the new Brightline service is America’s first privately owned passenger train line in three decades. Somehow, hopefully, it will work together with Tri-Rail trains, local buses, light rail, taxis, ride-share apps and whatever else is next.
How could all that come together? Luckily, there’s an answer, and it begins on a Japanese bullet train.
The idea for the Japanese bullet train began after the war, when the island was in shambles; its economy, infrastructure and even its spirit were broken. A system of high-speed rail lines feeding into the capital would change that, they hoped.
But it was far too expensive for post-war Japan. Then the 1964 Olympics came to Tokyo, and the country needed a way to get people through the notoriously tricky-to-navigate countryside. In the end, the government would spend the equivalent of $14 billion on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, with multiple stops along the way.
It became, however, a bloated and overburdened government bureaucracy. By the mid-1980s, the Shinkansen had such a reputation for waste and fraud and ineffectiveness that the government decided to sell it. Privatization began in 1987, slowly, like anything in this change-adverse country. The last shares went public in 2006, and in the past decade the companies that now own the bullet trains have seen values of those shares grow steadily.
The privately owned bullet train made tough cuts, eliminating employees and skipping stops in rural areas that attracted few passengers. It’s not a cheap way to travel, about $135 one way nowadays, more expensive than the low-cost airlines that have begun to siphon away riders. But the Shinkansen remains, however, a quicker and more efficient way to move people throughout the country, says Kazuko Ishigaki, one of the top transportation officials in the Japanese government.
The bullet trains are unlikely to replace planes for traveling across the United States, simply because the country is too large, Ishigaki says. But she believes what we can learn from the bullet trains is how the government can work with a privately owned system. There’s also a better comparison when you look to the states; Japan is more than twice the size of Florida, meaning bullet trains could work here as well.
With President Donald Trump’s pledge to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, Ishigaki hopes some of that will include bullet trains. “President Trump has said he will make America great again,” Ishigaki said during an interview at her office in Tokyo. “We have a high expectation. We know American infrastructure is aging, and we hope we can help fix that.”
Already, a private firm is planning a $12 billion bullet train that would connect Dallas and Houston. An agreement signed in August would see it in operation by 2019. It’s expected that the Texas train will share the technology of Japan’s Shinkansen line.
If so, the new Texas train will be as smooth as gliding on ice skates, as quiet as a luxury car. In Japan, there’s an expectation of near silence on the bullet trains, black-suited businessmen sitting with families, traveling back to their villages, eating rainbow-colored, freshly made bento box lunches, the countryside a blur at speeds nearly three times faster than cars on U.S. highways.
As the Shinkansen makes stops along the way, most of the passengers will head to another train to make a connection with ease, and there they will likely find another privately owned system, and another lesson for South Florida.
In many ways, the $3.1 billion Brightline train that will run from Miami to Orlando has been an example of how government and business can work together. And in many ways, it’s absolutely an example of how they don’t.
First, in the good news category, there are things like the main station in Miami. The folks from Brightline worked together with the Tri-Rail and local transportation departments to build what industry people call an intermodal hub. The $69 million station, funded in part by $14 million from Miami-Dade, will serve the colorful new Brightline trains, buses and downtown’s Metromover.
It will also serve as a last stop for the publicly funded commuter rail line Tri-Rail, which runs from West Palm Beach to Miami. The station came together after months of meetings and agreements, says Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail. “In my history, this is the first time ever we’ve created a public-private partnership [for public transportation in South Florida],” Stephens says.
Brightline declined interview requests for this article and instead provided a written response, which is attributed to Brightline CEO Dave Howard. The response claims Brightline has worked together closely with South Florida transportation officials. “As a result of this collaboration and planning, the existing Tri-Rail system will connect with downtown Miami,” the statement reads. “This is transformational for the entire South Florida region as the public can now utilize Tri-Rail to take a one-seat ride into downtown Miami.”
For years now, Tri-Rail has also been negotiating with Brightline’s parent company to add a coastal link that would run along Brightline’s tracks, from Miami and perhaps all the way to West Palm Beach. That would mean Tri-Rail could move beyond its location-challenged tracks that run mostly on the west side of Interstate 95, away from most of South Florida’s urban centers. Tri-Rail had discussed the plans as a near certainty for much of the past two years.
When asked about it in April, Stephens imagined Brightline serving as an express service, with limited stops between Miami and Orlando, and trains with more amenities, like a lounge car with cocktails. Tri-Rail, meanwhile, can use the same tracks to cheaply serve commuters at dozens of stops. “All of us are trying to get this new service in place and then build on the structure once it’s there,” Stephens says.
Then, in August, county transportation officials announced that Brightline had thrown out an entirely new idea, that the company itself would run the Tri-Rail trains. The proposal sunk the idea back into studies and perhaps years more of planning. Asked about what happened, Brightline declined in its written response to address the failed Tri-Rail coastal route.
As for Brightline’s service, it also had its difficulties getting going. Initially, the service was expected to begin during the summer. Then the company pushed it back to the fall. By press time, Brightline was expected to begin its services in December, with trains running by the end of 2017.
But even as Brightline tested its new trains, it still hadn’t released the fares. It hadn’t announced how it would charge passengers. And it was slow to release the schedule of stops. That meant local and regional transportation officials couldn’t even begin to think about how to coordinate with the private company.
Khaled Shammout, with Palm Tran, Palm Beach County’s public bus system, says his people were on standby to coordinate with Brightline, but it just wasn’t possible without getting information from them first. “We can relatively easily adjust our bus schedule to the arrival times of Brightline,” Shammout says. That wasn’t possible, however, because Brightline hadn’t told county officials when trains would appear in Palm Beach County stations.
The problem with that lack of coordination is perhaps exactly what can make Brightline succeed or fail. If Brightline pulls into the station and then riders have long waits to get on a local public transportation system, it could double and triple commute times, making the whole system not worth the inconvenience.
Mitchell Bierman, a Coral Gables attorney and transportation expert, predicts the system will overcome those early communication problems. Technology that can track a train’s location and allow riders to hop from public transportation to Brightline can make sure of that, he says. “It’s not easy to have all the agencies on the same page using the same technology, but there is such a value in the long term to having them all coordinated,” Bierman says. “If they can manage that, Brightline will be a sea change for us in many ways.”
It happened just like that, actually, in western Japan, where the city of Kobe pulled it off three decades ago.
It’s midday on a Monday, so Takahito Yonezawa can make his way easily up to the front of a train on the Kobe New Transit line. At rush hour, this would be a sea of humanity, a whole train of dark suits and school kids, packed so tightly most of them don’t need to use a hand hold. But now, Yonezawa walks to the front, where, usually, someone would actually be driving.
“We offer smooth, smooth movement in the city,” Yonezawa says with pride, wearing on his dark suit a lapel pin with his company’s logo.
His company, Kobe New Transit Ltd., was a marvel when it opened in 1981. It was the world’s first automated public transportation system, with local trains guided by virtual conductors in a control room, feeding into the same station that also serves the bullet trains. The fact that the whole driverless system is run from a central control center is novel enough. Then there’s the fact that it’s also privately run, and yet it still ties in seamlessly with public transportation.
“With the same ticket, you can hop on and hop off our system and the subway system,” Yonezawa says, searching his wallet for his card before holding it up in the air with satisfaction. “One card and you can do everything.”
It’s like this in Tokyo too, where publicly owned subways run in concert with private trains and rail lines, with one ticket that serves all of it. Among the most successful is Yurikamome Inc., which runs streetcars that glide on elevated tracks. In 1995, Yurikamome began running from the insanely busy Shimbashi Station and now takes riders over the scenic Rainbow Bridge, with its views of the bay and Tokyo skyline. It took Yurikamome Inc. eight years to benefit from the service, but now the company generates $13 million yearly.
Kobe New Transit, meanwhile, is known as a semi-public company. It doesn’t make a profit, per se, but it does sink any net income into more trains and more service areas, with two lines now that run all the way out to the city’s airport.
In Japan, this idea of public-private partnerships began decades ago, and now the country’s trains run like some shining beacon of public transportation. The Japanese show it works, in a country where “just in time production” is a national mantra.
And maybe, if Brightline comes together like planned, it’ll work here in South Florida too.