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Looking purely at the numbers, the Tokyo railway system seems like a nightmare. The average number of daily rail commuters in Greater Tokyo is around 20 million. Multiply that by 365 days and you have an annual ridership of 7.3 billion people—almost the population of the entire world in a single year.

Predictably, this results in crowded railway lines and stations. A recent report by the Japanese government revealed that 11 of the Tokyo lines are consistently operating at 180% capacity. The Tōzai Line in the heart of Tokyo is at 199%, which means that riders are left standing shoulder-to-shoulder with virtually no room to move.   

Yet despite this busyness, the system functions well. It is so efficient and organized that these usage numbers never overwhelm it. While 20 million people take the train every day, the Tokyo railway is:

1. Incredibly Clean             

Tokyo railway stations are always being cleaned—and it’s not just the sort of perfunctory bucket-and-mop cleaning you’d expect. Staff regularly scrub stairs, handrails and escalators with disinfectant, and even manage to leave the bathrooms looking shiny and germ-free. Interestingly, you’ll rarely see a garbage bin in a Tokyo station, but there are never any wrappers or cans lying around either; commuters diligently take all their refuse with them.

2. Orderly and Quiet      

Even at their busiest times, Tokyo stations remain fairly quiet and orderly. Commuters wait patiently in designated lines to board trains, and there’s little pushing or shoving. The same is true of the trains themselves. While riders are forced to stand in close proximity, they respect others’ personal space. You’ll also be struck by how quiet it is. It’s frowned upon to talk on the phone—or do anything else that’ll disturb the peace—in a crowded area like a train car.   

3. Always On Time

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tokyo trains are almost never late. Even a delay of a minute or two will result in profuse apologies from railway staff. Riding the trains, you’ll sometimes see commuters waking from a nap precisely as the train reaches their station. How do they manage to always wake up at the right time? The train schedule is so consistent and predictable that they literally set their watches to it. Riders simply set the alarm clocks on their phones to the train schedule, and let the noise wake them over their headphones.

4. Tech-Forward

Japan is known for embracing the latest technology, and its railway system is no exception. Keeping pace with other leading cities, Japan’s stations and trains offer free WiFi, and commuters can download useful apps that make the complex network of trains, stations and different operators far easier to understand. Customers have come to expect a convenient user experience when commuting, and Japan has risen to this challenge.

The Secret to Tokyo’s Success

Considering the number of people who use the Tokyo railway system, how does it stay so clean, pleasant and reliable? A lot of it comes down to money. Greater Tokyo’s railway system is profitable, meaning it has the funds needed to maintain and improve all its assets. Where many transit providers across the globe are struggling simply to stay afloat, Tokyo’s railways are thriving.

That so many people use the railway system obviously helps when it comes to generating funds, but that’s not the true reason for Tokyo’s profitability. The real reason is that Japan has privatized its railways; in 1987, Japan broke up its national railway system into six rail companies, and let each of these entities make its own business decisions. As a consequence, these companies were free to be more agile and profit-focused—they were even allowed to make significant investments outside of transport. JR East, one of the primary companies operating in Tokyo, owns hotels, restaurants and shopping centres. In fact, 33% of its annual revenue comes from outside of its transportation service offerings. In the case of another railway company, JR Kyushu, that number is 60%.

Of course, not all transportation systems can be privatized—and in many cases they probably shouldn’t be. Even in Japan, some of the privatized railway companies have struggled. JR Hokkaido in particular has posted significant losses, largely because it is forced to run smaller regional stations that are unprofitable. But Tokyo’s railway system nevertheless offers an interesting case study of how a transit company can rise to just about any challenge when it thinks strategically, prioritizes timetables and service and has sufficient funds.    

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Image: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone