A day among the Super Trains

Japanese super express trains. For people of my generation who grew up in Japan, these trains are loaded with mystique. Until the French built some faster ones, these were the fastest trains operating anywhere in the world. I’m not absolutely sure but if you factor in the size of the network, I think the Japanese system is the largest super-express system in the world. With their aerodynamic “Bullet” designs, Star-Trek interiors and smooth, quiet operation, these things have more in common with spaceships than steam locomotives. Japan doesn’t do very much freight by rail, so rail lines aren’t constantly cutting through industrial pits and huge switching yards. Cities are still centered around the stations so the trains come right into the middle of the most attractive energetic areas. Most of the super-express lines are elevated, affording views of the surrounding countryside that is hard to rival. The sensation is often more “low flying aircraft” than it is “fast train”.

What is it that allows the Japanese mass-transit system to be so much better than anything I’ve ever seen. New York, Paris, Boston, Chicago, London, San Francisco. All these systems have their charms and their ups and downs. But the Japanese system is in a league of it’s own. The sensation you get riding the Japanese system is that the network is awake. The people running the trains are paying attention. They take deep pride it what they’re doing. Comparing this to Amtrack conductors, who are basically comedians to distract you from the fact that the train is running 3 hours late, is a good way to be embarrassed as an American.

I haven’t been back to Japan in some six years. I keep noting that this is the longest time that I’ve been away from Japan since I was born. The thing that surprises me the most is the extent to which Japan has NOT changed in 6 years. In the past when I hadn’t been back in awhile, I was always amazed by the changes. This time I’m amazed how things are pretty much as they were. The exception to this is tiny things that I’m noticing in the transit system. Little things that have been tweaked and improved. The new “Suica” card system (proximity based cards), the screens on the Yamate line that show not only where you are on the loop but running ETAs to each station coming up. It’s this sense of constant pressure forward that makes the whole thing seem alive, awake and sentient.

I’m typing this on the Super-express hurdling north from Tokyo, towards Akita. When I was a kid there was no Super-express north of Tokyo. The first time I went to Akita, 11 years ago, there was no Super-express to Akita. We had to go to Sendai and change. It took all day to get to Akita. It will still take me the bulk of the day, but the establishment of the “Akita Shinkansen” has cut hours off this trip. When was the last time anything happened in the states that cut HOURS off a trip? I mean Amtrack has that fast train in the NorthEast corridor, but the improvement in time is marginal.

Now lest we get the impression that Leon is just lauding praise on his birthland, there are PLENTY of things that Japan doesn’t do well at all. Take for example express-ways for cars. They suck here. The US interstate system is a utopian fantasy compared to the bizarre dystopian nightmare of the Japanese express-way system. It’s really slow, and really dangerous, and to top it all off, really expensive. I noticed at Tokyo station that there are a lot of situations where wheelchair access seems really iffy. I haven’t even been here 24 hours, and I’m already sick of lines and crowds. I wouldn’t mind the one thing that Amtrack does give you: Standard AC electrical outlets at your seats. The list can go on and on. But the fact is that the rail system is superior.

The great thing about this is that it’s an electrical system. Meaning that the carbon footprint of the entire system is a determined by how power is being generated. I believe that a significant portion of Japanese voltage comes out of nuclear plants for better or worse, but as cleaner power sources come on-line, the trains just plug into it (Wow! I sound really pollyanna about this).

Oh yeah. Guess what? I’m ready for universal, ubiquitous, free WiFi. Why is it ok to assume that everywhere I go there will be basic sidewalks and roads for me, but I can’t assume web connectivity? I know this is an unreasonable argument, but we’re not going to get anywhere with reasonable arguments. It’s time for it. Why not? Public space! Come on people! Cities of the world, GET ON THIS!

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “A day among the Super Trains”

  1. Joel says:

    The US Occupation supposedly offered to build an Interstate-quality highway system in Japan after the war, but were turned down. I’ve always been curious about this–whether there were any regrets, how many people would have lost property, etc.

  2. Joel says:

    It’s not unreasonable at all to expect free, public Wi-Fi (or equivalent ubiquity) Internet access. The radio spectrum is in the public domain, and in most of the world, only through the passage of laws by democratically elected legislators are radio frequencies allocated to commercial entities for commercial use. Once the technology has become commoditized there are very few reasons not to have free, public net access.

    See http://www.fon.com/ for one example of a company trying to make Wi-Fi more available than not.

Leave a Reply