Friday, November 5, 2010

What we can learn from Japan

Yamanote Line, Tokyo
The Japanese have one of the worlds most frequent, reliable, and profitable railway systems, substantially helped by Japan's very high population density. Whilst Brisbane doesn't have the population density, there are plenty of things that the Queensland Government, TransLink, and QR could learn from the Japanese railway system. 

Efficient turnarounds - Even during the rush hours, it is rare to see QR timetable a reversing move with less than around 8 minutes. This can restrict capacity, particularly at locations such as Manly and Mitchelton where reversing trains can block the path of through trains. In Japan, where the most frequent service possible has to be run with minimal infrastructure (due to high cost of land), trains are often reversed in less than 2 minutes - see this video at Tokyo station

Child care centres - Japanese railway companies are increasingly running child care centres at railway stations as part of transit orientated developments (TODs). Simply drop of your child on the way to work, and pick them up on the return journey. This then eliminates a car journey to or from the child care centre on the way to and from the station. Given that getting the kids to and from childcare prevents many parents from using public transport, this could attract more parents to using public transport.

Shops - The Japanese love their convenience stores, which seem to be around nearly every corner. TODs around stations, even as simple as a small convenience store can make life much easier for the Japanese, and reduce the number of separate journeys (which in Australia would invariably involve a car) to pick up the groceries. 

Feeder buses - In Japan feeder buses, often run by the train company, connect with trains. In some cases where patronage (or Japanese roads) cannot justify a full size bus, then smaller midi or mini buses are used as in this photo. SE Queensland has huge swathes of public transport black-holes only just out of walking distance from some train stations, which are just crying out for feeder bus services. Anyone ever seen a bus at Enoggera bus interchange?

Grade separation of level crossings - Trains are so frequent in Japan that during the peaks there are some level crossings that can stay closed to traffic for more than 40 minutes/hour (in one location it was 58 minutes/hour!). So the Japanese are spending a lot of money on grade separation, so that road traffic does not mix with rail traffic. Similar schemes will be required in Brisbane when TransLInk and QR eventually get around to improving peak frequencies. 

There are plenty of other things that can be learnt from the Japanese railway system, notably high frequencies (even to rural areas), exceptional reliability, the ability to run both express and all stations services at high frequency by using overtaking tracks at stations, making efficient use of single track sections, high speed intercity rail, commuters with good manners, and of course happy departure melodies that play before the train departs!


  1. Another wonderful feature of Japanese train stations - they tend to have a large secure bike parking area. For about 100 yen ($1) you can park your bike in a fenced area with an attendant (so it won't get stolen or vandalised). Hundreds of bikes can fit in the space that ten cars would take. Even elderly people who live a couple of kilometres from the station can hop on their step-through bikes for a leisurely cruise down to the station (equally possible here in Brisbane, where we are legally allowed to ride on the footpath). The only car parking spots needed at train stations are the ones for people with disabled parking permits!

    Love the streetcars (trams/light rail) that connect up with train stations in some cities too. They make it so easy to get where you're going.

  2. The reason why you have 8 minute turnaround is so that the return journey has a better chance of departing on time.

  3. True - there is a trade off in fast turnarounds against reliability. In Japan trains are rarely more than a few minutes late, meaning that trains can be reliably turned around in a few minutes without causing delays.


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