The Japanese love their railway, even though it was privatised 30 years ago. NADEEM KARBHARI finds out how it’s managed, and identifies some cultural ideas that mighttransfer well to the UK

One of great achievements of the Japanese railways is public perception.

Despite being privatised in 1987, the country’s population still sees the privatised services as their national railway, with any other providers labelled as the other ‘private railways’. The country as a whole is very proud of the quality of its trains, and this makes a crucial difference to recruitment, operations and efficiency. The Dr Yellow phenomenon says it all. There are Dr Yellow branded t-shirts, hats, shoes, soft toys. Parents will take time out to take their children to see Dr Yellow pass by. And Dr Yellow is basically just a maintenance train that runs every 10 days. The UK has a far stronger heritage in the sector as pioneers, so what can we learn that could make the UK love its railways again?

I was on a two week exchange trip to look into the inner workings of the JR Group. Since the privatisation of the Japanese railways in 1987, the seven for-profit firms that took on the national assets and operations have managed to turn its railway into the country’s most successful and admired organisation, one that’s become renowned globally. Famously, JR Group handles seven billion passenger journeys each year in a relatively small country, and it does it with unwavering efficiency and remarkable punctuality.

The foundation of success
Even when Japan was still in the early and messy stages of working out its privatisation strategy, British Rail could see there were lessons for the UK system. The first exchange was organised by Adrian Shooter CBE in 1986 when he was a senior executive at British Rail, and before he took on the transformation of the privatised Chiltern Railway. To begin with, three executives were sent to Japan, as much to understand the ‘threat’ from privatisation as to imitate the processes being established there. Adrian is still involved with organising the annual exchange programme with JR Group, with a new group of UK staff from a range of operators. And in 2016, the experience is as bracing and inspiring as it would have been in the beginning.

From the JR Group perspective, the foundation of its success is safety, enacted through its strong safety manifesto, and reiterated in connection with every part of the operation, and central to its mission and values. Secondly it’s the concept of investing in resources. JR Group owns the trains and the infrastructure, so doesn’t have to deal with any of the tensions that other national operations can have. And thirdly, education. Of the 18,400 employees, a good proportion are in older age groups and the organisation is very conscious of the need for continuity and not losing any of the knowledge and values learnt over the course of long careers. On-the-job training therefore, forms an important part of knowledge and skills transfer among employees.

All types of education and development are tracked like a personal medical record for each member of staff. The group education is impressive. All employees spend time at the General Education Centre at Nagoya. This isn’t the occasional day of update training, or even a special week for the top executives. People will stay for two months alongside the teachers who live there with them. There’s all the facilities that people need for an extended stay, the canteen, the gym and other leisure activities. It’s a way in which the business doesn’t just pass on learning but makes the JR Group an important part of employee lives, embedding culture and values.

Creating the culture
Another cultural difference is recruitment and career progression. Staff turnover at JR Group is less than one per cent, so essentially once you’re in – and employees tend to join aged between 20 and 28 – then it’s a job for life. Their position and progress tends to be dictated to them by managers, they’re rotated and they have the opportunity to prove their worth in that role. In the UK, if you want to try a different kind of role you leave for another job role or career route, which makes for more of a disconnect between the HQ and frontline staff, while in Japan there’s progression and rotation between the two.

There are a great number of small technical learnings from the exchange. But the biggest lessons for the UK would seem to be around passenger culture. We got tovisit some of the busiest stations in the world, at Shibuya and Shinjuku. These stations are crammed to the limit and operations are always stretched. If people aren’t using the daily commuter trains, they’re in the stations doing their shopping. What makes the potential chaos work is that the passengers are on-board and understand how the service works, that everything is being done to make it work. In the UK there’s a lot of activity around delivering information of course – but what we don’t do as well is in engaging customers so they feel it’s their railway, we’re in it together. More screens on trains sharing real-time information, more app-based content would certainly help, but the issue is cultural.

People and processes
There’s also the level of attention to counter measures. The JR Group identifies any problems for services and maps all the factors that contribute to risks, then looks at ways to change or mitigate these risks. So they have done everything possible to avoid small issues turning into any larger ones. For example, drivers can turn up late for shifts, causing delays and a problem for any train operating company. In Japan the drivers are able to sleep at the depot. It’s a facility that means drivers can come off their shift and go to a room to sleep. They’ve looked at every detail to make it an attractive proposition, even making sure the angle of beds is optimised according to the kind of sleep needed – a short power-nap as opposed to a night’s sleep. Alarms are pre-set according to individual shifts. Another example of counter-measures is around cleanliness and the use of brooms that can detect moisture, so if there have been any accidents on a seat the broom will find it and the seat can be taken out of commission and properly cleaned.

Big data is used to a greater extent for planning. In the UK we’ll plan ahead – if there’s a known date in the future which will generate additional passenger volumes, a sporting event or music concert – but JR Group do it daily based on historic data and patterns. They’re ahead in terms of the ways in which sensors are used to automate maintenance (thankfully it’s not relevant, but the TERRA-S anti-earthquake system which switches off power to thesystem is a good example of the quality of sensor tech being adopted on services).

There are many differences in culture and management highlighted here, and taking on board some of the nuances in culture and practice could make a difference to public perception of the railways in the UK.

Nadeem Karbhari, is performance reporting and analysis manager, MTR Crossrail