In the wake of the riots, Mr. Cameron has decided to fix a broken nation by raising rail fares by 8 per cent. Many people think that rail fares are high enough already, but the government are saying that the price hikes will bring about a better service.
Well, I’d like to tell you a story about railways and rail fares and good service, and if you like it, you may want to pass it on … to your pals or to your MP or to Mr. Cameron or whoever because I think someone has a little explaining to do.
I’ll begin with an anecdote, because I like anecdotes. It’s a bright and sunny Sunday and I’m sitting in my favourite trendy café in Osaka having an excellent brunch of French toast with cheese and ham and salad and a cappuccino and thinking of having a beer for dessert. A pal, also in Osaka, calls me and suggests a falafel lunch in Kyoto, which as you know, is an entirely other city. It’s a bit like having brunch in Camden in London and being invited for lunch in Oxford. Not quite as far as Oxford, but comparing Reading to Kyoto in any anecdote is kind of offensive. But another city and a jaunt to get there, nonetheless.
In Britain I would have scoffed at the idea of travelling that far for lunch. But I said yes, and I didn’t have to think about it because it wasn’t a bother, and, anyway, you just don’t get falafel in Osaka.
I jumped on a subway train to get to my rail hub, a few stops away. That was ¥230, or £1.80 at the current rate. At the station I bought a ticket for Kyoto which cost me ¥390 — £3. Kyoto is another city, and I paid £3. Are you getting the direction I’m going in here? Lunch in Kyoto achieved, we jumped on train back to Osaka, then a subway across the city (¥270, £2.14) for a music festival thing, which was one of my favourite musical experiences ever. Back on the subway home (¥230), etc. etc.
The equivalent London-Reading round trip would have cost me, at current prices, £23 or £35.50 depending which arcane price definition I chose. That’s £3 compared to £23 or £35.50. How does that happen?
That was not a special price I paid to go to Kyoto that day. That’s a normal price. I batted form one city to another for falafel and music and didn’t bat an eye at the price of transport. And I had a fab day across two cities.
In Japan, all the railways have similar prices. To go to any given city I probably have a choice of rail lines and I’ll choose by how conveniently located their hubs are, not by price. Express trains between cities roughly every 20 minutes. Non-express trains will run every 10 or 15 or 20 minutes and will cost the same as the express trains. There are special interregional expresses whose fares are perhaps three times the normal rate, but you are talking a couple of thousand yen compared to several hundred.
The trains will almost never be late or delayed. If a train is late, it is because there was a suicide on the line or a lightning strike or a drunk wandering about. It will not be because of leaves, sunlight or rain or lack of staff or lack of wheels. Well, having said that, earthquakes and typhoons might interrupt the trains, but they interrupt everything.
The prices don’t vary according to the time you travel. You don’t have to discuss or negotiate with the rail staff your options. One price, whenever you travel. No variations, no ifs, no buts. Discounts or free travel for children, the disabled, students, retired people.
The trains are clean. On arriving at the terminals, the drivers and guards will go through the whole train, pick up rubbish and wake sleeping passengers. Cleaners go through the trains at every terminal too, and will stop and bow in the carriage doorways to apologise for cleaning up our mess. One morning my commuter train appeared to hit something just short of the station. I’m not sure what — maybe a branch of a tree blown there by a typhoon. The train stopped and the driver had a good look at the front of the train through his window. Then the train continued. When we arrived at Tennoji in south Osaka, engineers were waiting on the platform. While the passengers did their getting on/off thing, the engineers jumped down on the tracks, checked the train was OK and were back on the platform before the train needed to go on its way. Imagine that happening in Britain.
The prices I quoted above do not include the Shinkansen trains. The Shinkansen hurtle between cities at speeds of 200kmph or whatever. They are spacious and comfortable. And, yes, they cost a bit more than non-bullet trains. Osaka to Tokyo, one way is ¥25,810 for a distance of 481.2km (slightly more than London to Edinburgh) for a travelling time of, get this, 194 minutes. And Shinkansen run between Osaka and Tokyo every 10 or 20 minutes. A bit like the subway, in fact. On the Shinkansen, you pay, you get comfortable, you get where you’re going.
I sometimes have to go to Fukuoka for work, which is 534.6km. I’ll get online and plug in my desired arrival time etc, and the rail company site will tell me to the minute my departure time and arrival time, taking into account the time it takes to change trains. And the time estimates are correct. Every time. You can travel the equivalent of the length of Britain and know exactly when you will leave and arrive. Arriving at Manchester airport last December after three days stranded at Helskinki and completely unable to get into Heathrow because of snow storms, I bought a one-way ticket to Cheltenham (176km) for my daughter and I. It cost £67. And the train was cancelled. And the next was delayed, as was the next. It took about five hours to get where I was going. And the same month I bought a Cheltenham-London (143km) return ticket for about £45, which the clerk told me was cheap. I would have laughed his head off but for the bullet proof glass separating us. Once on the train, I reconsidered my return time the following day and at Paddington paid another £12 to put the return time back an hour or two. Twelve quid just to go home two hours later.
I have a lot of stories about public transport in the UK and I hope to find the energy to put them down here, though, if you are British, you have probably lived them yourself.
Japan has an extensive network of train lines run by several different companies. Until I had children I didn’t even think of buying a car. You really don’t need one without kids.
Imagine what this kind of public transport system does for the economy. You can zoom about for work or you can zoom about for fun, spending money on other things as you go. I have no idea how Japan achieves such a transport system, whether it is subsidised or what. I do know it works. And the people I know who work for the rail companies feel pride in their jobs.
Britain’s level of development and population density are equivalent to Japan’s.
(Perversely, London’s travel cards are great value for money. Again, so inconsistent. Why can they do that and yet appal everyone with everything else they do?)
So my screamingly obvious question is, if Japan can have cheap, efficient and ubiquitous public transport, why can’t Britain? Why are exorbitant UK rail fares going up a further 8 per cent? I suspect that UK rail travellers need a huge explanation, and I think people might like it to be a good one.