Caroline Field and Jonathan James report back from a visit to see the Japanese Railways in action

By the 1980s, the Japanese National Railways had fallen into debt. The cost of the new Shinkansen trains and a series of clashes with unions and workers had made the future of the whole system uncertain. Over the past 30 years, seven for-profit firms have turned the network – handling seven billion passenger journeys each year – into some of the country’s most successful and admired organisations.

The UK and Japanese Railways have been working together and sharing knowledge since the days of British Rail – and that continues in the form of the annual Anglo-Japanese exchange programme co-ordinated by Adrian Shooter (a respected railway manager who has worked for British Rail and a number of private rail operators) since 1993.

Our two weeks with JR Central in November 2018 provided a unique behind-the-scenes insight into a remarkable operation. Not only did we receive detailed presentations from senior managers in each department, but were also given access to the Control Room, Training Centre and top secret Research Centre. We visited the Shinkansen maintenance depot and saw first-hand the innovation and continuous improvement that defines the railway culture in Japan. During the visit, we travelled on the Shinkansen network and made time to try out some of the subway Lines and Monorail routes to experience the system from a customer point of view. We identified a number of ideas that could be adopted in the UK and a few ideas from the UK that could benefit Japanese Railways, especially in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, following the success of the London 2012 games.

The marketing team use historic data to forecast the potential passenger numbers on any given day, enabling the timetable to be adjusted each day to reflect the predicted demand, taking into account holidays and special events. The timetable is constructed in such a way that additional trains can be switched on as required without re-writing the plan. The timetable has more trains running on Mondays to accommodate an influx of people returning to Tokyo after the weekend, and a similar increase on Thursdays and Fridays when they are leave the city for the weekend. The forecasting was very accurate meaning that resource utilisation was extremely efficient and profits were maximised.

A highlight of the visit was joining ‘Doctor Yellow’, a high-speed engineering train as it raced past Mount Fuji at more than 160 mph – an experience more like that of an aeroplane than a train. It’s an icon of Japanese culture. Children and adults alike will stop to admire ‘Doctor Yellow’, take photos and buy branded merchandise including T-shirts, hats and soft toys. It’s really just a maintenance train checking on the track and overhead lines, but each of the seven carriages is fitted with hi-tech equipment that is constantly monitored by teams of smartly dressed on-board technicians.

There is constant innovation and investment taking place on the infrastructure and in the trains themselves, which are typically replaced every ten to 15 years in order to keep up with the latest inventions and safety initiatives. Some of the Shinkansen lines, as well as many of the Metro and monorail lines, are fitted with platform edge doors to reduce trespass and improve safety. They are similar to those used on the Jubilee line in London, although generally the doors are hip height rather than full height as in London.

Probably the biggest differences between UK and Japanese Railways is the organisational structure. In the UK, private operators generally bid to operate fixed term franchises or concessions, whilst in Japan the railways are fully privatised, with businesses taking ownership of track, stations and trains. This enables long-term investment opportunities backed up by a certainty that they will reap the benefits from every yen they spend.

Providing high-quality passenger information is essential, with clear information screens provided at stations and on trains giving live travel information, including details of any problems on the rare occasions when there are delays. All of the announcements and information screens provide information in Japanese and English and more and more staff are learning English ahead of the 2020 Olympics. As a whole the system is very easy to navigate, helped by ideas such as colour-coding of the different train services to clearly indicate fast, semi-fast and stopping services, helping passengers to identify their train and ticket validity. We tend to think that Japanese railways run like clockwork but this is not entirely true. We did experience a few delays on some of the commuter lines and there was even one occasion when the Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’ were suspended. Away from the big cities the train service is still fairly good, but there is less English signage and fewer English-speaking staff.

The staff are very disciplined and maintain very high standards across every aspect of the operation, whether that’s in train maintenance, control room operations, customer service or train cleaning, and everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them. This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with safety. The safety culture includes the process of ‘pointing and calling’ for example, when operational staff, including drivers, conductors and station staff, point and articulate their next series of actions. These simple, but vital routine measures are an example of the uncompromising safety culture, with staff encouraged to look out for themselves as well as for their colleagues. If they see others doing anything unsafe they will let them know and report the behaviour, with management usually preferring re-training over disciplinary action.

One of the characteristics of JR employees is that they are always immaculate, whatever their role, or the time of day. It’s an outer reflection of employees’ sense of pride in their company and the service they provide for the country. There does seem to be a cultural difference compared to the UK, perhaps because staff in general join JR Central from school or university and stay with the company for life. New staff rotate in their roles for the first five years, often starting work at a station before progressing to become a conductor and then a driver, before returning to a station again. This provides them with a full experience of the operation, seeing how each element works, as well as what it’s like to deal with customers directly. Staff take ownership of their own development and training in order to do the best they can for JR and the people they work with. All employees spend blocks of time at the General Education Centre at Mishima, living alongside their trainers and colleagues, whilst they adjust to the culture and values of the company. It’s not unusual for staff to fund their own courses and study in their own time.

A group of staff from JR Central also visited the UK in January 2019 for the return exchange visit. Whilst Japanese Railways are often considered a model for other railways internationally, there is still much for them to learn from other railways around the world, and vice versa, including the operation in the UK.

It was also interesting to see some areas where the UK is perhaps a little ahead of the Japanese Railways, including the availability of Wi-Fi on trains – although this is being improved ahead of the Tokyo Olympics – and, perhaps surprisingly, the use of cashless options for buying tickets. In particular, some overseas visitors with the Japanese Rail Pass cannot use the automatic ticket gates and instead have to use a separate booth. We were also surprised to see fax machines still in use, compared with MTR Crossrail where all front-line staff are equipped with iPads for communication.

We also noticed a lack of diversity generally across JR Central, in particular a lack of women in senior roles, which they do recognise as an issue, and is perhaps a reflection of their more traditional society. The falling birth-rate and rising number of older people means that JR Central may need to review their current policy, which includes no ‘mid-career’ recruitment from other industries (which means the organisations could miss out on new perspectives and good ideas from other sectors). There’s a similar rigidity when it comes to attitudes to different passenger groups. The Shinkansen train doors aren’t wide enough for wheelchairs, so mobility-impaired passengers usually have to fold their wheelchair before boarding the train, and there are no plans to provide wider doors on any future generations of train. This is one issue that we discussed with our Japanese colleagues, especially when it comes to catering for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Mobility-impaired passengers are put into a separate room on the Shinkansen trains, and there are similar separate rooms for smokers and nursing mothers. The segregation of disabled passengers felt a bit old-fashioned compared with the UK.

The development of London’s new Elizabeth line is the opportunity to create a new kind of railway. We have the chance to introduce best practice from wherever we find it, whether it’s our parent company in Hong Kong, our operations in Sweden or from our recent visit to Japan. There are always some regional and cultural differences and we need to find the right balance for the British context and develop our own culture that we can be equally proud of.

Caroline Field is Customer Information Manager and Jonathan James is Head of Contracts, MTR Crossrail. MTR Crossrail was awarded the concession for operating the new Elizabeth line services across London on behalf of TfL in 2014. It has a mission to set a new transport standard for the UK, moving people and connecting communities better than anyone else. The Elizabeth line network will run services connecting the City, Canary Wharf, the West End and Heathrow Airport to commuter areas of east and West London. Services will run from Reading (to the west of London) to Shenfield (to the north east) and Abbey Wood (to the south east).