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Clockwork precision on the Tokyo subway

AFP
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On timePeople waiting in line for the next subway train on the Marunouchi Line during the morning rush hour at Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo. Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, and between them they carry nearly 10 million passengers daily.Photo: AFP
On timePeople waiting in line for the next subway train on the Marunouchi Line during the morning rush hour at Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo. Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, and between them they carry nearly 10 million passengers daily.Photo: AFP

The vast train network that criss-crosses subterranean Tokyo can be a confusing and intimidating place for the uninitiated.

It may not be pretty, but in a city where millions of commuters travel by train daily, it boasts the precision of a finely-crafted Swiss watch, keeping Tokyo moving -- even if it means pushing hundreds of people into a single carriage at rush hour.

Subway officials say that Tokyo's business culture and the value its people place on punctuality pushes them to achieve the kind of precision that foreign underground railways cannot easily replicate.

"The subway is an integral part of everyday life in Tokyo. This level of safety and punctuality is expected by our passengers," said Shogo Kuwamura, a spokesman for Tokyo Metro.

The city actually has two public subway operators: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Between them they carry nearly 10 million passengers daily.

Punctuality

These layers of interconnecting rail systems make punctuality all the more important -- a minor delay on one train can have a knock-on effect on another service, which in turn throws several more out of kilter, each one of them setting off its own ripple effect.

But when delays do occur -- even as little as a minute -- they are repeatedly announced to passengers along with humble apologies until normal service resumes.

Prolonged delays are fodder for local, if not national, news programmes, and see the train companies handing out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses as a reason they were late for work.

"If there is a delay, you have to catch up," said driver Shunsaku Hagita, 27. "You apply your skills so that you can recover from delays."

Subway trains are increasingly operated by computers and monitored by the central command centre to minimise the risk of human error, Hagita said.

Drivers sit in the cockpit essentially to provide human eyes to monitor the on-deck computers and to take action in emergency situations, he said. In the event of an earthquake warning, all trains automatically stop.

A dream job

Drivers and platform attendants perform elaborate rituals at each station to demonstrate they are paying attention to subway safety.

In their cockpit, white-gloved drivers chant to themselves as they acknowledge and drive by safety signs in tunnels and to confirm readings on various onboard gauges.

Before signalling "safe to start" to drivers, conductors must raise their arms and point a finger to the closed doors, loudly demonstrating to onlookers they have checked the doors are safely shut.

For Japanese boys, the train driver sits alongside footballer, doctor and policeman as a dream job.

"I grew up watching train drivers do all that," said Hagita. "There was nothing unnatural about this when I began working as a driver.

"When I get married and start a family, I want them to ride on my train," he said.

The system played a proud part in Tokyo's successful tilt at hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, with bid chiefs pointing out that the city's "rail structure is one of the best in the world and continues to expand and develop."AFP


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