29 October, 2012

Why so many trains?

Yesterday Deb asked in her comments about why trains systems here are so complicated and why some train journeys require so many train changes. There are a few reasons I can think of.

Firstly, and probably the biggest reason is that there are a lot of people jammed into not much space. That means that there are a whole lot more train stations and train lines to negotiate than in even the large cities in Australia. Something like 42 million people are serviced by the below train system.
I found this map of Tokyo's stations here, if you want a closer look.
Not all the train lines are owned by the government either. That often means you have to exit one set of gates and, if you're lucky, the other gates will be close by. Or, you might have to walk several hundred metres to find your connecting train at a completely separate station.

Tokyo is a collection of several city centres. So the trains head for those centres and to get from one part of Tokyo to another that isn't a city centre, you might have to go through two or more city centres.

Our train line is privately owned and terminates at our nearest big city centre, Ikebukuro. If you want to go any further than that, you have to change trains there. It is a large, slightly scary station. In fact this is what Wikipedia says about it:
"with 2.71 million passengers on an average daily in 2007, it is the second-busiest train station in the world." 
I remember the first time we went through there, it was lunch time and we had a hungry toddler. It took us ages to find somewhere to eat and all our nerves were frayed by the time we found something.

Need to know your geography
So at these big train stations, you first need to find your line (which might not be right next to the line you just alighted from) and then you need to figure out which platform you need to be on. That demands that you know some big train station names and a bit of local geography. My chief problem on Thursday and Friday was that I only had the names of the stations I was headed for, not the other big stations round about and almost no local geographical knowledge.

For example, I thought I'd found the Kintetsu line that I needed to change to on Thursday morning. I knew I needed to head to Ikoma station, but couldn't find that on the line maps on either platform. Weeeeell, actually I thought I found it on one, but that got me into trouble as I hoped on the wrong train on the wrong line and ended up far from Ikoma station. It turns out I wasn't on the Kintetsu line at all, but the Hanshin line. I'm truly not sure how that happened.

Then on Friday my new friends from the workshop put me on a train to Nara, even though I knew I needed to head to Kyoto. They didn't tell me that I needed to change trains at Yamato-saidaji station for a Kyoto-bound train and that Nara wasn't actually on the way to Kyoto. I neglected to change, but quickly realised my error and changed trains at the next station.

Not all trains are equal
Another trick that gets me is that not all trains are equal. There are a bewildering array of train-descriptions. From Local and Rapid to several types of Express: Semi Express, Commuter Express, Limited Express and plain old "Express". Shinkansen is a "Super Express".

The difference in these is mostly that they don't all stop at every station. And unless you are "in the know" you might easily miss your station. Trains do have good announcements, but you do have to pay attention (and not sleep like many Japanese do). Some announcements are in English, but mostly you're relying on Japanese announcement.

So, depending on which train I catch, I can make it from Ikebukuro to home on one or two trains. It is often more efficient to take an express train to the station before your station and then hop off and take the local (which is often patiently waiting for the express passengers) one more station to your own. Or the other way is also common, take a train from your not-so-major station to the station where the faster trains stop and change trains there to get there faster. That sort of behaviour quickly racks up the "train count".

Then you get the trains that terminate at various stations short of your destination. That's happened to me on several occasions. It happened on Thursday. I had no clue that this train would do that (not knowing the names of the stations between the one I was at and my destination), but I was going the direction I needed to go, so I hopped on anyway. I had to change trains about three stations later because my train terminated there.

Does that help, Deb? Most signs have Romaji (the English letter form of Japanese), so that is really helpful. But it still means lots of careful looking at many signs, listening to announcements and cacophony of other noises while negotiating around many urgently moving bodies who all seem to know exactly where they are going.


Alyce @ Blossom Heart Quilts said...

I feel your pain!! On our way back from Sendai we had to navigate Tokyo stn with a stroller and big suitcase and we could not find the elevator to our platform anywhere. Almost in tears from exhaustion and frustration, we ended up asking stn police and had 3 of them escort us around to the right elevator which happened to be very poorly signed and in the middle of nowhere!

Wendy said...

On my Facebook page link to this article Lorna wrote: "I think another point must be that a lot of Japanese in these big cities don't have cars, and that the roads are not easy to drive on and very narrow in parts. So most people rely on the train system almost exclusively when in other countries more people would rely on their cars. Therefore you need a lot more stations and more lines to service all these people."

Quite true! We certainly rely on the trains more than we do in Australia, even though we own a car. We don't even consider driving into the city. The train is by far the more efficient way.

Deb said...

I was nearly in tears and needing a good nap just reading that! Now I understand!!! I imagine I'd need to complete something like a two-year TAFE course in Advanced Train Navigation before I'd be game enough to tackle that lot. I wonder what my autistic friend who is loves trains would make of it. He knows every station and line in our capital city. Forgetting for a moment the trouble that Japanese would cause him, I wonder what a system that complicated would be like for him. Perhaps he'd love it!

Evangeline said...

I am worn out just from reading this...That is why we head OUT to nature rather than "downtown" when we have a chance.
So glad you made it back to Tokyo, Wendy!

Wendy said...

So true, Evangeline! We head "out" too. We've done very little touristy stuff in Tokyo at all, and usually only when visitors come.

Deb, I'm sure your autistic friend would love it, though it might be a bit all consuming to start with!

KarenKTeachCamb said...

That map is scary! I was thinking of visiting you guys, but I'm not so sure now. I can handle Bangkok with it's 3 sky train lines and subway in addition to the ordinary rail system, but your system looks way too scary for me, especially without any language! Then again, it might be worth it just to say I'd experienced it. I'm sure my students would love that.

Thanks for this post Wendy, I now have a much better understanding of your train travel adventures.

Wendy said...

Alyce, you'd like to think that major stations would have better access than that, wouldn't you? I was at a pretty major station on Friday night and from what I could tell there were no escalators and only one elevator down to the platform. With my dodgy knee and a suitcase full of books, I had to wait with a half a dozen prams and almost as many other people with suitcases for the use of that elevator!

Thanks to Deb for the question. It hadn't occurred to me to explain the trains, but it was a useful (if somewhat painful) post to write!

Karen, if you came to visit, we'd try to come and collect you from the airport. It really is a bit much to expect a first-time visitor to cope with.

Karen said...

That map is the most complicated thing I think I've ever seen....makes little old Brisbane look sooo easy in comparison :)

Loved this post, it was really interesting reading about how you get around!

Wendy said...

Thank you Karen, you make me feel much better about being challenged in this department! And I'm a Twmba girl. I hardly ever used public transport until I went to uni in Brisbane. I could never have imagined I'd one day have to negotiate my way around Tokyo!