Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: trains that run on time

And when I say "on time", it means to the minute, or probably even to the second. Apparently, the average arrival time is within 6 seconds of the scheduled time! I don't wear a watch, so I can't say for sure, but what we saw of the train network in Japan is just so efficient, it puts Irish Rail to shame. And I wonder how many "fact-finding missions" to Japan our civil servants from the Department of Transport and Irish Rail officials have been on to discover the secret to the Japanese punctuality and efficiency. I'll say "no need to waste any more tax payers' money". It's simple - the Japanese take pride in their work. Even the train cleaners, who line up at Tokyo station to clean the shinkansen train in their pink and blue uniforms to ensure that everything is perfect for the fresh batch of passengers about to embark on their journey. When's the last time you've seen an Irish Rail staff cleaning the train before you got on? Or a train driver wearing his/her uniform with the same pride as an airline pilot?

OK, the shinkansen is not cheap, but it's a great way to travel around the country. And the per-mile cost is probably not much more than Irish Rail!

It was such a buzz the first day we took the train to Kyoto from Tokyo station. We were in a waiting room downstairs, and I decided to go up on the platform to do a recce (I really wasn't sure how this word was spelt, but it appears in Wikipedia, so it must be right).

First of all, the platform goes on forever - there are 16 cars on a shinkansen (with a total capacity of 1300 passengers!). When a train goes by, it takes minutes. It goes on and on. There are trains coming and going the whole time (again according to Wikipedia "Between Tokyo and Osaka, the two largest metropolises in Japan, up to ten trains per hour ").

And when a train arrives, there is a whole cleaning crew on the ready - the passengers get off the train, the crews get on, turn the seats around, make sure everything is clean (which is not hard, as the Japanese don't leave garbage behind  - a Japanese person would be horrified at the state of the cinemas in Dundrum after a show - popcorn everywhere and sticky floors), they are done within 7-8 minutes, then the next set of passengers, already lined up at designated points on the platform, get on, and the train is gone again. Amazing. I had to film it. And Brendan had to film it too. We just couldn't believe our eyes. Limerick Junction, eat your heart out!

And the trains are comfortable, fast, silent (no one yapping into a mobile phone - the Japanese respect their fellow passengers), you can buy food and drinks, or otherwise relax. Now, the scenery between Tokyo and Kyoto isn't great - it's mostly industrial and sub-urban sprawl, with a few green bits in between (some rice fields, some tea plantations, a glimpse of Mount Fuji, and we also saw the Sanyo solar ark, but not much else). But you're in Kyoto in just over 2 hours, relaxed and ready to start exploring the minute you're out of the station (Now, finding your way around and out of the station is another matter - Kyoto station is huge. Not quite as big as Nagoya station, which apparently is the largest in the world. But it took me a while to figure my way around. Thank god, I had Brendan with me.)

Great information on the website by the way. And just in case you're worried, all signs on the platforms and on the trains are in English as well, so it's really easy. And even local trains have signs in English on the platforms, so no fear of getting lost. We went from Nagoya to Hamamatsu on a local train with a change at Toyohashi, as it was cheaper than the Shinkansen. As we were travelling on a Sunday, there was no problem with our suitcases. We just left them behind the last seats in the car.

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