Shinjuku Station in March 2011. • Photo by m-jy
Shinjuku Station in March 2011. • Photo by m-jy

According to Guinness World Records, Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Japan, is the busiest station in the world. Despite having 3.3 million passengers travel through the station per day, the trains at Shinjuku Station are renowned for being on time.

This may be due, in part, to Japan’s obsession with punctuality. In Japan’s business sector, for example, employees are not “allowed” to be late. While lateness at a job in the United States may not be tolerated to an extent, being late to work in Japan is simply not acceptable—lateness in Japan brings a greater amount of disappointment to employees from coworkers and superiors.

This attention to timeliness is reflected in Japan’s transportation system. Because of the tremendous pressure for people in Japan to make it on time to work or school, Japan’s trains are also expected to always be on time. Train operators in Japan do not violate the scheduled times unless there is an accident.

In order to learn more about what goes into making an entire transportation system run on time, I spoke with Takumi Honma, a representative of JR East, the biggest railway company in Japan.

The strategy for keeping JR East trains on time is actually quite simple. Basically, Honma said, the train conductor closes the doors in time for the departure time that has been decided, and then the driver departs the train at this departure time. The driver has to abide by a strict timetable to get to the next station on time and repeat the cycle.

Train of Yamanote Line (series 231) on January 2007. • Photo by LERK
Train of Yamanote Line (series 231) on January 2007. • Photo by LERK

This cycle is closely monitored by computer systems. All JR East trains in the Tokyo metropolitan area are supervised by a system called the Autonomous Decentralized Transport Operation Control System (ATOS). A system called Computerized Safety, Maintenance and Operation Systems of Shinkansen (COSMOS) manages all Shinkansen (Japanese high-speed rail) provided by JR EAST.

In Shinjuku Station, the number of people using JR East trains is 748,157 people per day on average.

For commuters here in Seattle, like Garfield High School student Tiger Song, when it comes to riding the bus, punctuality is not an expectation. In fact, he says, it is nonexistent.

“The buses [in Seattle] are late most of the time,” Song said. “I get used to it but it does rub me the wrong way sometimes.”

The number of passengers who ride the transit every day in Seattle and King County may not compare to Shinjuku Station. According to the King County Metro website, 414,693 passengers use their transit every weekday. Shinjuku Station has 3.35 million passengers per day. However, while the transit here in Seattle and King County may not be as punctual as in Shinjuku Station, there are many factors that come into play for why your bus may not show up on time.

The Rapid Ride B Line in May 2013. Photo by S.S. Sol Duc
The Rapid Ride B Line in May 2013. Photo by S.S. Sol Duc

I spoke with Jeff Switzer, an official with King County Department of Transportation about what obstacles King County Metro faces in making sure their buses arrive on time.

“Unlike metro rail systems, which have a dedicated right of way, and thus full control of their operating environment, buses operate on city streets and highways, so they are subject to many of the same delays and interruptions as general traffic,” Switzer said. “We collect a data about the on-time performance on our routes, and typically try to write the schedules that reflect the travel times under normal conditions. This allows customers to anticipate how long their trips might take.”

King County Metro has approximately 1,100 buses in operation during weekday peak hours. There are fewer buses in service in the evenings and on weekends. King County Metro uses a GPS system called Computer-Aided Dispatch and Automatic Vehicle Location (CAD/AVL), which automatically reports buses’ positions to the Transit Control Center every 90 seconds.

Despite the many factors that can cause delays in a bus rider’s commute, Switzer said that King County Metro understands the importance of punctuality.

“Our riders benefit when buses arrive on time,” Switzer said. “They can take their trips with confidence that the bus will pick them up at the scheduled time, and will arrive when scheduled. This allows them to plan their travel and other activities.”

It would seem that wherever in the world people do their commuting, nobody expects their train or bus to be late. However, I can understand that while JR East and King County Metro are in different parts of the world, and deal with different obstacles, their thoughtfulness for their riders are the same.

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