Most of what I write about is what North America can learn from Europe, but the rich countries of Asia are extremely important as well. But what’s more interesting is knowledge sharing between Western Europe and the rich countries of East Asia. These two centers of passenger rail technology have some reciprocal exchange programs, but still learn less from each other than they should.
The ongoing coronavirus outbreak made the topic of Western learning from East Asia especially important. To be clear, none of the examples I’m going to talk about in this post is about the virus itself or at all about public health. But the sort of reaction in democratic East Asia that’s staved off the infection, compared with the failure of the West to do much in time, is instructive. When the virus was just in China, nobody in the West cared. I went to a comedy night in Berlin a month ago and it was the Asian comic who joked about how all they needed was to cough and the white people gave them space; it was still viewed as an exclusively Asian epidemic. By the same token, Korea’s success in reducing infections has made it to parts of Western media, but implementation still lags, leading to an explosion of deaths in Italy and perhaps soon France and the US. Hong Kong (from the bottom up) and Taiwan (with government assistance) have limited infection through social distancing and mask wearing, and the West refuses to adopt either.
If it’s Asian, Europeans as well as Americans view it as automatically either inferior or irredeemably foreign. Whatever the reasoning is, it’s an excuse not to learn. Unlike the United States, Europe has pretty good public transportation in the main cities, and a lot of domestic innovations that are genuinely better than what Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do; thus, it can keep going on like this without visible signs of stagnation. Nonetheless, what Japan has, and to some extent the other rich Asian countries, remains a valuable lesson, which good public transport advocates and managers must learn to adopt to the European case.
Urban rail and regional rail: network design
Tokyo and Seoul both have stronger S-Bahn networks than any European city. This is not just an artifact of size. Paris and London are both pretty big, even if they’re still only about a third as big as Tokyo. In Tokyo, the infrastructure for urban and regional rail is just far better-integrated, and has been almost from the start. Among the 13 Tokyo subway lines, only three run as pure metro lines, separate from all other traffic: Ginza, Marunouchi, Oedo. The other 10 are essentially S-Bahn tunnels providing through-service between different preexisting commuter lines: the Asakusa Line connects the Keisei and Keikyu systems, the Hibiya Line connects the Tobu Skytree Line with Central Tokyo and used to through-run to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, etc.
This paradigm of cross-regional traffic is so strong that on lines that do not have convenient commuter lines to connect to, there are suburban tails built just to extend them farther out. The Tozai Line hooks into a reverse-branch of the Chuo Line to the west, but to the east has little opportunity for through-service, and therefore most trains continue onto an extension called the Toyo Rapid Railway.
On the JR East network, there are a few subway connections to, but for the most part the network has its own lines to Central Tokyo. This is an early invention of mainline rail through-running, alongside the Berlin S-Bahn; the Yamanote ring was completed in 1925. Further investment in through-service since then has given more lines dedicated tracks through Central Tokyo, for capacity more than anything else.
The issue is not just that there are many through-running lines. Tokyo has 15-16 through-running trunks, depending on how one counts, and Paris, a metro area about one third the size, will soon have 4.5. It’s not such a big difference. Rather, Tokyo’s through-running lines function well as a metro within the city in ways the Berlin S-Bahn, the Paris RER, the Madrid Cercanías, and any future London Crossrail lines simply don’t.
What’s more, future investment plans in Europe do not really attempt to turn the commuter rail network into a useful metro within the city. Berlin has a strong potential northwest-southeast S-Bahn route forming a Soviet triangle with the two existing radial trunks, but it’s not being built, despite proposals by online and offline advocates; instead, current S21 plans call for duplicating north-south infrastructure. In Paris, the RER C doesn’t really work well with the other lines, the RER E extension plans are a mess, and most of the region’s effort for suburban rail expansion is spent on greenfield driverless metro and not on anything with connections to legacy mainlines. In London, the subsurface Underground lines are historically a proto-S-Bahn, with some mainline through-service in the 19th century, but they are not really used this way today even though there is a good proposal by railfans.
While Europe generally does the longer-distance version of regional rail better than Japan, the vast majority of ridership is S-Bahn-type, and there, Japan absolutely crushes. What’s more, Korea has learned from Japan’s example, so that the Seoul Subway Line 1 is an S-Bahn and many other lines are very long-range; Seoul’s per capita rail ridership is much lower than Paris’s, but is increasing fast, as South Korea is a newly-industrialized country still building its infrastructure at low cost to converge to Western incomes.
Tokyo outdoes the closest things to its peers in the West in S-Bahn network design. Japan is equally superior when it comes to the rolling stock technology itself. It has all of the following features:
- Low cost. Finding information about rolling stock costs in Japan is surprisingly hard, but Wikipedia claims the 10000 Series cost 1.2 billion yen per 10-car, 200-meter train, which is around $60,000/meter, compared with a European range that clusters around $100,000.
- Low weight – see table here. European trains are heavier, courtesy of different buff strength regulations that are not really needed for safety, as Japanese trains have lower death tolls per p-km than European ones thanks to accident avoidance.
- All-MU configuration – Japan has a handful of locomotives for passenger service for the few remaining night trains, and runs all other trains with EMUs and sometimes DMUs. Parts of Europe, like Britain, have made this transition as well, but Zurich still runs locomotives on the S-Bahn.
The one gap is that Europe is superior in the long-range regional rail segment with a top speed of 160-200 km/h. But Japanese trains are better at the more urban end up to 100 km/h thanks to their low cost and weight and at the high-speed end of 300+ km/h thanks to low cost and weight (again) and better performance.
Shinkansen equipment is also more technically advanced than European high-speed trains in a number of ways, in addition to its lower mass and cost. The N700-I has a power-to-weight ratio of 26.74 kW/t, whereas European trains are mostly in the low 20s. Japanese train noses are more aerodynamic due to stringent noise regulations and city-center stations, and the trains are also better-pressurized to avoid ear popping in tunnels. As a result, the Shinkansen network builds single-bore double-track tunnels hardly bigger than each individual bore in a twin-bore European rail tunnel, helping reduce cost relative to Japan’s heavily mountainous geography. The EU should permit such trains on its own tracks to improve service quality.
The Shinkansen works better than European high-speed rail networks in a few ways, in addition to rolling stock. Some of it is pure geographic luck: Japanese cities mostly lie on a single line, making it easy to have a single trunk serve all of them. However, a few positive decisions improve service beyond what pure geography dictates, and should be studied carefully in Britain, Germany, and Italy.
- Trains run through city centers with intermediate stops rather than around them. This slightly slows down the trains, because of the stop penalty at a city, and sometimes a slightly slowdown for an express train. This is especially important in Britain, which is proposing an excessively branched system for High Speed 2, severely reducing frequency on key connections like London-Birmingham and London-Manchester.
- Trains run on dedicated tracks, apart from the Mini-Shinkansen. This was enforced by a different track gauge, but a sufficiently strong national network should run on dedicated tracks even with the same gauge. This is of especial importance in Germany, which should be building out its network to the point of having little to no track-sharing between high-speed and legacy trains, which would enable high-speed trains to run more punctually.
- Train stations are through-stations (except Tokyo, which is almost set up to allow through-service and errs in not having any). If the legacy station is a terminal, like Aomori, or is too difficult to serve as a through-station, like Osaka, then the train will serve a near-downtown station a few km away, like Shin-Aomori 4 km from Aomori and Shin-Osaka 4 km from Osaka. Germany does this too at Kassel and has long-term plans to convert key intermediate terminals into through-stations, but France and Italy both neglect this option even when it is available, as in Tours and Turin.
- Rolling stock is designed for high capacity, including fast egress. There is no cafe car – all cars have seats. There are two wide door pairs per car, rather than just one as on the TGV. There is full level boarding with high platforms. Express trains dwell even at major stations for only about a minute, compared with 5 minutes on the TGV and even slower egress at the Paris terminals. Trains turn at the terminals in 12 minutes, reducing operating expenses.
- Pricing is simple and consistent, without the customer-hostile yield management practices of France, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe.
Japan is renowned for its train punctuality. As far as I can tell, this comes from the same place as Switzerland: system design is centered around eliminating bottlenecks. Thus it’s normal in both Japan and Switzerland to leave some key commuter lines single-track if the frequency they run allows timed meets; both countries also employ timed overtakes between local and express trains on double track.
Where I think Japan does better than Switzerland is the use of track segregation to reduce delays. Captive trains are easier to control than highly-branched national rail networks. In Switzerland, there is no room for such captive trains – the entire country has fewer people than Tokyo, and the city of Zurich has fewer people than many individual Tokyo wards. But a big country could in effect turn long lines into mostly separated systems to improve punctuality. This goes against how the S-Bahn concept works in the German-speaking world, but the Tokyo and Seoul lines are in effect metros at a larger scale, even more so than the RER A and B or the Berlin S-Bahn. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Britain could all learn from this example.
The heavy emphasis on punctuality in Japanese railroad culture has been blamed for a fatal rail accident. But even with that accident, Japanese rail safety far surpasses Europe’s, approaching 80 billion passenger-km per on-board passenger fatality where Europe appears to be in the low teens.
Is this everything?
Not quite. I will write a companion piece about what Asia can learn from Europe eventually. For one, East Asia appears to optimize its rail operating culture to huge cities, much like France and Britain, and thus its smaller cities have less per capita rail usage than similar-size Central European ones; on this list, compare Fukuoka, Busan, and Sapporo with Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Rome, Frankfurt, Barcelona, and Hamburg. Europe is also better when it comes to 160-200 km/h regional rail.
However, the bulk of intercity rail traffic even in Europe is on high-speed trains, an area in which Europe has more to learn from Japan than vice versa. Similarly, the bulk of individual boardings on trains are on metro and short-range S-Bahn trains even in the German-speaking world; there there is a lot of learning to be done in both directions, but at the end of the day, Tokyo has higher rail usage than Paris and London.