Sunday, July 06, 2008

"Japan's Clockwork Trains - Sayonara?"

Japan's trains are generally known for three things - 1) They're crowded, 2) They're nearly always on-time, and 3) The super-express (Shinkansen) trains are fast. Many of the trains are less crowded than before (thanks to more of them and to companies allowing flextime), but unfortunately, breaks with the schedule seem to be increasing. (The Shinkansen trains are still fast, and as I very rarely use them, I don't know if they're running precisely on time or not - hopefully they are.) At this rate, Tokyo's famous "always on time & running like clockwork" train system is in danger of becoming just another "always late and off-schedule" system to grumble about. (The Shinkansen trains are in a special category - like aircraft - and don't play a part in most people's commutes to and from work every day.)

Some obvious reasons for slipping schedules, are the many train stopping buttons they've installed on station platforms (which coincide with the aftermath of, and are probably in response to, an incident in which three people were run over by a train (at Shin-Okubo Station on the Yamanote Line) while people on the platform watched helplessly), and less pressure to be at work precisely on time (flex-time is common at many companies now).

Less obvious, but no less real, some segments of society seem to be more prone to destructive actions. ...... Uh-oh... did I just say that? Ouch - now I know I'm old! Well... it's true though; while things still run pretty well, there are many more instances (than before) of people tossing a wrench into the gears for the sport of seeing part of an operation stop (at least temporarily).

Now - I should delete that paragraph above, but I'll leave it in as an example of what happens to a formerly young person who has begun to get old(er). It's a shocking thing - you look at grumpy old people and wonder why they are like that, and one day you wake and up realize you're complaining about irresponsible young people! Whoa! Wait a minute! What's going on here?

And so I have made a transition from shaking my head at the frantic rush into central Tokyo to get to work on time, to shaking my head at a lack of passion for getting to work on time! A couple of examples witnessed first hand.

I was on an express train, standing (always standing, never sitting) near a group of elementary first grade students traveling somewhere (to school for the first time?; on some kind of field trip?) with a woman who was escorting them. After a bit, one of the boys said he was feeling a little queasy, and the woman said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, "Okay, let's stop the train then".

I don't know how that sounds to you, but I was horrified both by the casualness of her remark and the triviality of the reason. She didn't seem to be in the least bothered by the idea of inconveniencing tens of thousands of people (about 2,000 people on one train, and trains all down the line stopped waiting for a train stopped out of place and out of schedule), and not for anything that could really be termed an emergency! If the boy is going to throw up, so be it! Give him a plastic bag! We're not talking about a day-long journey here, all he would have to do is wait an extra fifteen minutes before getting off at the normally scheduled stop. (There's the issue of throwing up *on* people of course - and that's something that's considerate to avoid, but she could have asked for a plastic bag - I'm sure someone had one. In fact, I had one, because I always carry a few for one use or another, including just such an emergency (more on that at the end of this story).

But, horrified as I was, I made no comment, and watched the woman open a window as the train slowly passed a station it wasn't due to stop at, and - sounding like it was actually an emergency - asked the people on the platform to get the train to stop because there was a sick passenger. Someone hit one of the emergency stop buttons (curse them!) and the train stopped. So far, so bad, but it gets worse.

There is a downside to a system that nearly always runs on time. Throw it out-of-whack, and the operators are not well-trained in, or accustomed to, how to think-on-their-feet and improvise a speedy new solution to an unplanned disruption in any given routine. The train stopped soon enough, but it took a few minutes to communicate with the train operators just why one of the platform emergency stop buttons had been pressed (put there to save lives, not for trivial reasons it should be noted). They then opened the doors to let out the boy (and the rest of his group). "Okay" I thought, "Let's get the show back on the road!", but since it was an emergency stop and the system isn't geared to not working on time, it took about five minutes(!) to clear whatever safety procedures (and I'm sure there are many) they have in place and get going again. I thought then, and still think now "Why so long? The sightly queasy boy is off the train. Just re-shut the doors and go!" It shouldn't take more than 20 seconds from the boy getting off to getting things in motion again. (Veteran Tokyo train rider I am - I think great efforts should be expended to keep the trains running On Time.)

At this point, I wish I could jump through to your side of the screen and ask how this sounds to you. Are you shaking your head at the woman forcing an emergency stop for a non-emergency reason, or at me for being callous? My view is the woman is far more callous - ignoring tens of thousands for one person who was not in the slightest bit of danger and had no need for emergency action.

The next example is sort of funny (in an "I shouldn't be laughing at this, but..." kind of way), that - at its core - showcases the very same "Ho-ho! Let's stop the train! It's easy! It's fun! Nobody needs to go anywhere! Ho-ho!" kind of (non-)thinking way.

The day began with me standing on the platform waiting for an express train. I watched a local (that shouldn't have been at the platform at that time) shut its doors and set out, then looked at the clock, which indicated my express should have been leaving (with me aboard) at that exact time. Three minutes later, the express roars in and I walk aboard (the term "climb aboard" isn't applicable here since the platform is exactly the same height as the floor of the train - it's pretty much like walking onto an elevator).

As I walk on with my fellow sardine riders, I wonder if the train will be less crowded than usual due to some earlier riders having taken a local, rather than wait for the express (depending on how many locals leave before the express arrives, they can be faster to a destination - there are only so many places for express trains to pass locals), but then quickly counter that with the thought "There may be fewer people on this train who were on the platform earlier, but there'll be more people who arrived on the platform later!" But (due to there actually being fewer people aboard or not, I'm not sure), I only have two people pressed up against me, compared to a more typical three to six.

I settle in for the ride by listening to my MP3 player (not an i-Pod), after forcing myself to look away from the two over-door monitors. One of them displays useful information about the train route, progress, station information, and news of which train lines are running late, and why (with ludicrous English translations - whoever did them was exceedingly lazy and/or lacking actively firing electrical signals in their head - there are something like ten different phrases that they translated into "Accident" in English), and the other display showing advertisements - some of them soundless versions of existing television ads, and others specifically made for the trains.

I avoid looking at the screens, because I've noticed how I'll be listening to an audio-book on my MP3 player; I'll look up and then realize (after a couple of minutes of watching the screen) that I'm not hearing the words (of the recording I'm listening to) any longer while I process the moving images. "Ah... this is why people are becoming ever more stupid in the world then! They watch TV!" I sometimes think, and then watch some TV on the weekend that I consider to be educational....

I settled into looking out the window between two peoples' heads (I was lucky to be second from the door - when you're stuck in the middle of a sardine run train, sometimes it's hard to find something to aim your eyes at - it's rude to stare at people's faces...), and listened to the classical Japanese story coming from my earphones (well-read and interesting-sounding, although its divergence from modern spoken Japanese makes it hard to understand). Suddenly the train went into hard braking with a simultaneous announcement saying we were making an emergency stop. The first time that happened to me was about a month ago - and large numbers of people fell down (a woman's high heel broke my skin and bloodied my leg in the pile up on the floor). This time around, it was old news ("Oh... another emergency stop..."), and since the train had been traveling fairly slowly anyway (stuck behind a slow local train until we could reach a station with extra rails for passing), no one (that I saw anyway) fell down, and I just braced myself and wondered *why* we were being thrown into an emergency stop (I don't recall hearing an explanation for the other time either - just a "Sorry everyone, we had to make an emergency stop"). Same deal this time, but at least we got back under way fairly quickly.

In re-reading this, it just occurred to me that it could be the ATS (Automatic Train System) jumping on a train that it detects as following too close to another train. The expresses run right behind locals until they get to a station where they can pass. In which case, it would make sense that the train could get under way again quickly. There's something to be said for trains being operated by people rather than computers.

I drifted off to commuter-stupor-land again - looking out the window - basically just waiting for the time of the ride to pass, looking forward to getting off the train and getting on with the day. But... what's this? The woman on my left is looking past me and also looking down, to the right, to the left... "Wha...?" So I look down, back, left, right, expecting to either see that someone has dropped something, or that some pair of sardines are beginning to have an argument (which always makes us other sardines nervous when that - infrequently, fortunately - happens). I don't see either of those things, but instead note that several people in my vicinity are looking left, right, down, left, right... I give the woman who first caught my attention a questioning look and she tells me "Byonin ga iru" ("Someone is sick"). I nod "Ah..." and while I'm just starting to comprehend what the "left-right-down-left-right people are doing (looking for an emergency stop), I see a tall man on the other side of the train open the emergency door release cover (as far as I can tell, on that particular train line, there are no longer any emergency stop buttons/levers on the inside of the train, but pulling the emergency door open lever will obviously also stop the train), and - while I'm thinking "No... please don't do that...", he pulls the lever until it's sticking out at a 90-degree angle.

That pair of doors slightly opens (probably terrifying the people who had been standing up against it!), and the train stops while I imagine the driver looking at an error on his control panel and thinking "What the &%$%?!".

Great - now we're stopped *between* stations - on an *elevated* railway, and the train isn't going to move until the doors are shut again. The driver (or the conductor) comes on the intercom and says "Hasshin era o hakken shimashita" ("A running error has been detected"). I looked over at the source of that error - the guy who had pulled the lever, who was standing there with his arms crossed, looking quite pleased and proud of himself for having figured out how to stop the train, and said (from here out the wholly Japanese conversation at the time translated to English here) "You should close that." He ignored me, so I turned around, shaking my head, and thinking "Alright - we'll just wait this one out then", but after about three seconds of living with that decision, I turned around again in frustration, looked at the lever, and watched as Mr. Lever-Puller then pulled the doors halfway open and poked his head outside (we were in the middle of the train, so both the driver and the conductor were about five cars away). Not seeing anyone, nor anyone seeing him, he pulled his head back in and mostly closed the doors. Another announcement came on that they were still investigating the running error (with 80 pairs of doors on a 10-car train (four per side, eight per car), apparently when one is open, it's not immediately apparent which one - and anyway, I suspect the driver probably imagined it to be a computer or sensor error rather than the doors really being open).

I turned back to the window, away from the source of our troubles, and pondered whether - in my agitated state - my Japanese was up to the task of conveying the lunacy of our disabling the train on an elevated railway between stations. Then, without first working out what to say, I cast aside the general rule of not talking on the train in the morning (not talking is the best way of getting to work without arguments breaking out under sardine conditions) and somehow the vocal gears started turning for me. I said "Okay - so we've got a sick person on board - now we can sit here and watch them die!" This got a response from Mr. Lever-Puller, who looked at me and said with an amazing look of calm & concern "Do you think I should close it?" Struck by the non-combativeness in his way of speaking, I dialed back my frustration a few notches and said "Well... if someone wants to get off the train right here...." So the guy looks at the sick man (who I noticed for the first time - I didn't know who it was before) and asks him with the same calm & concerned look/voice "Do you want to get off here?" The man nodded and started to move towards the door....

I watched in wordless fascination thinking (in pictures and feelings, not words) "Is he really going to climb down off the train right here, onto the elevated tracks? I wonder how much of a walk it is to the next station...." But as he began to move towards the doors, another man said "That's..." which carried a radio-broadcast load of meaning, more fully conveying "That's not a good idea" than actually saying "That's not a good idea". (What the Japanese language lacks in precision and clarity, people often more than make up for with radio broadcasts. Any serious student of the language should bear this factor in mind.) The man stopped, and it was apparent that he was not going to get off the train where we were stopped... with the power to get moving again tantalizingly close at hand ("Shut that emergency door valve!" was my broadcast signal!).

So Mr. Lever-Puller, once again with calm & concern, asked the sick man if he thought we should push the lever back to its normal, closed position. The man gave a small nod, Mr. Lever-Puller became Mr. Lever-Pusher, the doors closed with the same sound they make when closing at stations, and there soon followed an announcement that the error had been cleared. As the train slowly began to move again, I looked back to the sick man and began to wonder what was wrong with him (he looked okay, standing there in an expensive-looking suit). A student offered him a plastic bag, which he refused, and then Mr. Lever-Puller/Pusher quietly confirmed that it was another type of stomach problem. You don't want to know the details, but suffice it to say that the subsequent smell that arose in the carriage explained the exact nature of the man's problem. I sure felt for the guy - he probably had to buy a new suit before going to work, but stopping the train between stations like that hadn't helped him or any of us in any way. It just made things worse. (If someone really needs to get off for an actual emergency, the thing to do, is time the pulling of the emergency lever so that the train stops at a station.

Having said that - did we try stopping the train again for that poor guy? No... the thought didn't occur to me until after I was on my next train, and anyway, by the time we came to the next station after getting under way again, it was too late and I think we all just figured another ten minutes (to the regularly scheduled stop) wasn't going to make much difference. Although... the woman who was standing next to me, looked at me as we passed the next station... maybe she thought I should have pulled the emergency door open lever on our side of the train, where the platform was.

As we picked up speed, I again took to looking out the window, thinking over the morning's events and having a silent discussion with myself wondering if I had acted callously or badly about people wanting to help the guy get off the train. I came to the same conclusion I had already made in the heat of the moment: If stopping the train had helped at least one person in some way, then there's something to think about and discuss, but as it was, it made things worse for everyone - including the man Mr. Lever-Puller was trying to help. (That logic ignores the possibility of trying it again at a station, but the idea of doing that didn't occur to me until I was on my next train.  But even then, if the train is running at speed, people could get injured when it's suddenly thrown into emergency braking.)

Interestingly, about five minutes later, suddenly the driver (or conductor) had very precise details about the "running error". They came on the intercom again apologizing for the delay and explaining that there was an indication that a door on the left-hand side of coach #5 had been open. We coach #5 people almost lowered our heads a notch in shame, and I seemed to detect an underlying thought with the announcement along the lines of "What are you idiots in car #5 doing anyway?!" I could only agree.

I think... not so many years ago, that the man with stomach trouble wouldn't have asked to have the train stopped, and the man who pulled the emergency door release, wouldn't have done that. People don't seem to think of the thousands (or tens of thousands) of people they're going to inconvenience in the attempt to help one person. If that one person is having a heart attack or something that really is a life-threatening emergency, then of course it's great to stop the trains, if it helps the individual, but for stomach trouble? How many other people were barely holding on, counting the seconds until they could get off and rush to a restroom? Out of tens of thousands on one of the main rail lines (not an exaggeration), it's not unreasonable to imagine that there are a few individuals in such a state on any given day. That incident made us a further ten minutes late (on top of the initial five minutes) getting into the next station. (We got going again so quickly after the first emergency stop, that I don't think that actually affected the schedule.)

The conclusion? If people continue to stop the trains for frivolous reasons, they will increasingly run off-schedule, until Tokyo's "clockwork" trains become Tokyo's "broken-clockwork" trains.

Ah...I promised to put in my example of having used a plastic bag on a train. It happened like this - there was a man leaving the PR agency (back when I still worked there) for better employment. He was one of a string of people who left, and I was incensed at how the company had a made a big deal about most of the other people, throwing farewell parties for them, etc., but hadn't done anything for this guy, who I thought had done more for the company than many of the others. So, on his final day, I went out and bought some can-chuhai (sort of like vodka), and some things to eat with it, and we had a small (two-person) party in the office after quitting time (there were *always* people working there overtime, so the company was always "open" (for want of a better word) and we just used a conference table over by the balcony. After the chuhai ran out, we were having such a good time, that we raided the company refrigerator, where we discovered left-over supplies from a birthday celebration for another employee, that had occurred the week before. I'm ashamed to write the details, but these supplies included a half-bottle of vodka and a half-bottle of gin. Both of these we fully consumed and I staggered off to the train station to catch the last train home.

So - there I was, standing on the platform at Shinjuku Station, and the last train was approaching the platform just as I was beginning to feel queasy.... What to do - what to do. If I stayed off the train, I would have to find something to do with myself for the night while waiting until the first train at about 4:50 in the morning (Tokyo's entire train system shuts down every night except December 31st). But how could I get on?

Plastic bags to the rescue! I quickly opened my backpack and took two of them out, doubling them up so as to make sure there would be no leakage. The train came in, I climbed in with the rest of the sardines, bags in hand, and sure enough - after about five minutes I had to throw up, which I proceeded to carefully do into the double-walled plastic bag. I can still remember the expression on the face of a woman standing in front of me, who looked nervously back at me while I was throwing up (you can't go anywhere when you're packed into a train like a sardine, so it can't have been a happy discovery that her next-door-neighbor sardine was throwing up), but not to worry - the bags didn't leak and I didn't get anything on anyone. (There must have been some smell though.)

Ugh. I probably shouldn't even tell that story, but I would like to show that I know what I'm talking about when I say it's possible to throw up into a plastic bag on a moving train.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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