Trains, Transfers and Tokyo

The rail system in Tokyo is so reliable you wonder how New Yorkers ever function with the disaster that’s the MTA.  I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a subway, regardless of the time of day or day of the week.  There’s certainty because a display tells you when the next train will depart for what destination.  If there’s a delay of even a minute, a station attendant provides incessant updates and the conductor will apologize once you get on the train.

This compares to New York City where you have no idea which train is arriving next and when.  The frequency of the trains drops off noticeably in the off-peak hours, ensuring the trains are more packed once it does arrive.  Adding insult to injury, the longer you wait, the more likely it is that the next train will just skip your station because it’s too packed from picking up the people at the earlier stations.   It’s called “mass” transit, but it’s a misnomer.  Whenever the system is required to carry masses number of people, it stops functioning.

The Tokyo mass transit system may seem perfect, but it was not made for a lazy ass like me who just wants to read during his commute.  The problem is the excessive amount of walking I have to do, which is somewhat counter-intuitive because there are trains everywhere.  But it’s precisely the number of lines that’s causing me to exercise unwelcomely.  Because the system had dug so many routes already, the newer ones had to be dug deep.  And when I say deep, I mean really, really deep.  If you’ve ever lived in Boston, it’s sort of like going down the Porter Square station on the red line but having two sets of those.  My dad jokes that if you’re taking only one stop on the Oedo line, you’re better off just walking the distance because going all the way down, hopping on the train and coming back up takes longer and exerts more energy.

Then there are the transfers, which adds to the illusion that the subways are convenient.  Points of transfer were thoughtfully established during the early part of development of the system.  That’s why transferring between the oldest Ginza line and the older Marunouchi line is a breeze.  It’s as easy as going up an escalator, walking 50 yards and going down an escalator.  You may even be able to hop on the train waiting for you across the platform.

But as the city added more lines, the system devolved into mayham. They’d create a point of transfer between a new line and two older lines that required massive expansion to the existing station because it was never contemplated that there will be three trains coming into the station. This led to the preposterous “Transfer through the Hibiya line” signs, which requires you to cross an entire platform of another line before you can get to the platform you want to transfer to.

Then the planners got too clever by half.   As stations kept on expanding, they became close enough to each other to create a point of “transfer” by connecting two separate, but near-by stations.  This made the subway map wholly unreliable.  It may show that you can “transfer” to another train at a station (or a connected station) but you have no idea how far you have to walk to make such a “transfer.”  The odds are you’ll be spending far more time walking than on the train, which defeats the purpose of a mass “transit” system.  It’s ironic, really.  The NYC system can’t handle the “mass,” but the Tokyo system can’t even handle the “transit.”

At least the subway system has figured out that the best way to deal with exits to an ever-expanding station is to label each exit by letters and numbers.  The railway system hasn’t.  Alas, you should never arrange to meet anyone in Shinjuku, where, just on the JR Line, there is an East Gate and a Central East Gate and a South Gate, a Southeast Gate, a New South Gate and a Southern Terrace Gate.  It’s too late to fix this now

The organized chaos in Tokyo sometimes makes you wish for the simplicity of New York, where the routes basically go a combination of north-south and east-west and a transfer just involves going down the stairs.  Sure, there are parts of town that the train doesn’t cover (incidentally, if you live to the east of Lexington, your area will never be covered because that construction is never gonna finish) or parts you can’t easily get to (try cutting across Manhattan in uptown).  But at least you know when it’s better to hop on a cab.

Maybe, though, I’m again suffering from the grass is greener on the other side syndrome.  After all, I rarely met a cab driver in New York who speaks English and cab fares in Tokyo start at $10


7 Responses to “Trains, Transfers and Tokyo”

  1. 1 tennisstarac October 4, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Yeah I had the privilege of facing that one on my last day in Japan when the freaken typhoon hit! 4 hour and 6 trains! lol

    • 2 joesas October 5, 2011 at 8:56 am

      Or when you were late to our lunch? LOL.

  2. 3 Chris Schroeck October 6, 2011 at 10:34 am

    In Boston there is actually a place where two stations are close together and you can “transfer” by walking an underground tunnel. I can’t remember which two, though.

    • 4 joesas October 6, 2011 at 11:58 am


      I think I remember that. Between the Orange and the Green line?

  3. 5 Chris Schroeck October 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

    It looks from the map like it’s a tunnel between Park Street and Downtown Crossing, so you can go from the Green to the Orange without getting on the Red.

  4. 6 Chris Schroeck October 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

    • 7 joesas October 15, 2011 at 8:56 am

      Oh yeah, that sounds familiar…

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