The Bullet Train

Just got back from Japan where I got a lesson in mass transit. While we argue and fuss over high speed rail and modernizing our transportation infrastructure, Japan has for years taken the lead in getting people from one place to another with speed and efficiency. The Japanese obviously put money into mass transit since the trains are in large part new and well maintained.

The highways in Tokyo and Osaka are not crowded because most of the people are underground moving through a maze of subway and train stations that boggle the mind. But once you know where you are going and how to get on the right train, the ride is quick, smooth, and most of all on time. It is possible to set your watch or smart phone by the transit system, since during my stay the trains were never late. In fact the conductor is told to apologize if the train is a minute late. Try that in Boston.

The train stops are recorded by a calming, sweet voice that is designed to keep people calm- no gruff yelling by a guy who hates his job. Speaking of conductors, the Japanese ticket takers always bow coming into each car and when leaving. I know its a Japanese custom, but it is refreshing to experience politeness on a train.

I took the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo – an equivalent distance from Boston to Philadelphia – in about three hours. In the eastern corridor such a distance by train takes about six hours. The train was so smooth that you could leave a cup of coffee on your tray table and not have one spill. By the end of the trip I was saying to myself, ” Why don’t we have bullet trains in the US?” Why indeed.

There are some downsides to Japanese mass transit. During rush hour the government hires people to push the crowd into the cars to ensure that everyone gets on. Being shoved like cattle is not my idea of a pleasant ride. Then there are the women only cars. It seems that Japan has too many gropers and perverts on the trains and thus the transit authority has set aside women only cars to protect them from the low life.

Of course with 14 million people in metropolitan Tokyo it is necessary to have mass transit, but what we have on the eastern corridor from Massachusetts to Washington is the equivalent and there is no bullet train, no semblance of on time performance and too little support for mass transit; we are stuck in our cars on our cell phones complaining about the commute.

Building an efficient mass transit system will cost money, lots of money, but if Japan can do it, so can we.


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