Neil McNicholas: Why can’t our railways be like Japan?

Japan's railway system is the envy of the UK.
Japan's railway system is the envy of the UK.
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I’ve never been to Japan and so I’m relying on media reports and television documentaries for my information and observations.

But, back in November, it was reported that a train operator in Japan had apologised for the fact that one of its trains had pulled out of a station 20 seconds early. It wasn’t that anyone had missed their train as a result, but simply that trains in Japan don’t leave stations early – nor, under normal circumstances, do they arrive late.

In 2016 it was reported that the average delay for the Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen, was less than 60 seconds. Figures published by the relevant ministry showed that the usual reasons for trains running late, if they ever do, were more often than not passenger-related: people opening train doors after they had been closed, or continuing to board trains after they should have departed, or people trespassing on the tracks or committing suicide on them.

Otherwise, left to their own devices, trains tend to run immaculately to schedule.

I remember watching a documentary on the subject and it appeared to be a cause for abject personal shame and disgrace for a driver to fail to keep to the timetable – to the second.

A correspondent in the media who regularly commutes to and from work by train in Japan said that in his experience that, as a matter of course, conductors apologise repeatedly and profusely to passengers for any delay – both on board the train and at every station.

To British ears, all of this might sound a little fanatical, and yet why can’t we operate rail services at a guaranteed high level of comfort and reliability? And if not, then why not, and what can be done about it?

We certainly pay enough for the “privilege” of travelling by rail and so why shouldn’t we expect to travel in comfort and for services to keep to their schedules? Why should we have to stoically maintain our traditional stiff upper lip in the face of poor timekeeping, appalling reliability, frequent union strikes and poor quality of service – especially on our commuter lines? To paraphrase an exasperated Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t the UK be more like Japan?”

I live in Yarm. A hundred yards up the high street from my house is the George and Dragon pub where the idea for the very first passenger train service pulled by a steam locomotive, the Stockton & Darlington Railway, was conceived in 1820 and came into operation in 1825. I can look out of my window at the great 43-arch, 760 yard-long, 7.5 million bricks and 139,000 cubic feet of stone viaduct that carries the rail line from Middlesbrough to York over the Tees and over the town.

Such structures stand as a testament to the conviction and commitment of Victorian railway pioneers and engineers. Of course, if they were being built today the work would be given to the likes of Carillion, and we all know how that story ends.

Japan manages to operate a super-efficient rail system even in the face of typhoons and earthquakes. In Britain services grind to a halt because of leaves on the track and the “wrong type” of snow falling, and they may now be faced with the apparently unforeseen problem of new train sets being too long for the platforms they have to stop at.

And then of course, southern commuters have suffered the consequences of interminable union strikes because train drivers are apparently incapable of pressing a button to operate the carriage doors and therefore need a conductor to carry out that onerous task for them. The trains will still won’t run on time.

Most telling of all is the fact that should a train in Japan leave the station 20 seconds early, the train operator is required to offer a humble and very public apology for any inconvenience caused. In this country we have just experienced weeks of widespread chaos as a result of new timetables being introduced without adequate preparation and in the absence of enough drivers to operate the new services.

Far from resigning as an admission of his responsibility for the misery being suffered by hundreds of thousands of rail users, Transport Secretary Chris (the failing Crossrail-ing) Grayling simply deflects any criticism by blaming everyone else. One of his principal targets was Network Rail boss Mark Carne who was then awarded a CBE this week for “services to the rail industry”. You couldn’t make it up. A spokesperson said the timing of the announcement was “unfortunate”. Really?

When it comes to operating an efficient and reliable rail service that we can be proud of, the question recurs: “Why can’t the UK be more like Japan?” Answers on a postcard, please.