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Once again, a Japanese train leaves an 'inexcusable' 25 seconds early. Why can't we have the same problems?

Once again, a Japanese train leaves an 'inexcusable' 25 seconds early. Why can't we have the same problems?


A man waits for the train at a subway station in Tokyo. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

It was 7:11 a.m. last Friday when Japan’s national railway embarrassment took its “inexcusable” course, causing “great inconvenience,” as officials later acknowledged. A full 25 seconds before its scheduled departure time, at 7:12 a.m., a train left the station after its conductor was unable to spot anyone on the platform — essentially the Japanese railway version of someone going rogue.

And this isn’t even the first time: In November, a Tsukuba Express conductor triggered a similar apology after he departed 20 seconds early, raising social media laughter and eyebrows around the world.

Anyone who has ever dealt with trains in the United States or Europe might wish they had some more of Japan’s so-called problems. But why is it that Japanese trains are so much more punctual than ours?

It turns out, science has an answer.

Low U.S. infrastructure spending on its railway network — that has at times resulted in horrifying accidents — is certainly part of it. But European countries with far higher dedication to their own national railway networks have similarly struggled to implement the Japanese lessons at home.

The most prominent example of this is the Netherlands, which has been in touch with Japanese authorities for years to try to learn its lessons on punctuality and performance. Within Europe, the Netherlands has some of the most reliable connections, as a visualization of the distances Europeans can travel within 22 hours by train shows. Passengers moving around the Netherlands and neighboring countries will get much farther within a shorter time than Eastern European travelers.

(Peter Kerpedjiev/Swiss Public Transport Agency. Graphic by Lazaro Gamio/The Washington Post)

And yet, the Dutch railway operators won’t be able to match their Japanese counterparts anytime soon — or perhaps ever.

While a 2013 study by Didier M. van de Velde for the Delft University of Technology cited a “reduced readiness of the public sector to unconditionally inject money in the railway” in the Netherlands as a core obstacle to becoming more Japanese, another core difference with Japan was the Dutch separation between “train operations and infrastructure.”

While the Netherlands’ railway network is managed by one entity, the trains running on it are operated by various private and publicly-held companies. Their reliance on the same network makes it difficult for single operators to distinguish themselves by offering speedier or more reliable services.

On both points, the U.S. railway system is closer to the Dutch example than to the Japanese. Its publicly owned infrastructure is chronically underfunded, and although the Netherlands relies heavily on private operators — a model U.S. public railway critics have repeatedly advocated for — U.S. Amtrak services rely on a publicly (under)funded infrastructure as much as their Dutch counterparts do.

Some other lessons the Dutch tried to learn include “the attitude of the railway personnel, which was perceived by the interviewees to be exemplary precise and dedicated in Japan,” wrote van de Velde. For his research, he interviewed numerous Dutch railway service operators and stakeholders who had been in touch with their Japanese counterparts to exchange lessons learned.

“The picture of the Japanese train drivers regularly checking their watch and comparing by the second their difference with the timetable has deeply impressed all participants to the study tours,” van de Velde wrote. There was disagreement over whether Dutch railway operators could overcome such cultural differences, however.

When it comes to punctuality, the researcher observed, the differences also may be the result of decades-old practices that are difficult to disrupt. Although the Japanese are focused on allowing more trains to stop at stations in higher frequency, the Dutch are all about flexibility and higher speed in the proximity of stations (that can ultimately end up disrupting the punctuality of other trains, as it turns out).

Perhaps more important, however, the Dutch research project found that managers in charge of railway services had vastly different experiences in Europe, compared to Japan. Although European (and U.S.) train services are often overseen “by people ‘passing by’ ” on their way up the career ladder, “senior Japanese managers spent a very substantial time in operational duties.”

In other words: Japanese railway bosses know what sort of catastrophe a 25-second deviation from the schedule really is — and they won’t hesitate to apologize.

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