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Coronavirus may have long-term effect of easing rush-hour congestion on Tokyo trains

Sep 09. 2020
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By Hiroko Fukumasu/Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The Japan News/ANN

A person’s daily commute in Japan during morning and evening rush hours used to include being squeezed into a train car, almost incapable of moving, and trying to get off the train while fighting through the waves of other passengers trying to get on.

However, the sight of an overcrowded train has become less common because of the novel coronavirus.

Although tackling the overcrowding issue has been seen as a difficult task, for now, it has been unexpectedly realized. But how did this overcrowding start and what will the situation be like in the future?

‘Illegal’ overcrowding

“Overcrowded trains are a specialty of Tokyo / I wait forever but still can’t get on / I should be more aggressive / I have to risk my life.”

These are some of the lyrics of the popular song “Tokyo-bushi,” which was released in 1918, the seventh year of the Taisho era.

The song humorously depicts Tokyo’s famous spots and trends in those years and became popular among a general public struggling with rising prices and other social issues.

As the lyrics express, trains in Tokyo seemed to already be extremely overcrowded back then.

Japan’s first train line opened in 1872 between Shimbashi and Yokohama. In the 1900s, new train lines opened all over Tokyo.

However, improvements to the train system had not kept up with the increase in population. Around the 1900s, passengers used to hang on the outside of Tokyo streetcars or would have to wait about an hour at a station before they could get on a train.

Overcrowded trains in Tokyo date back at least 100 years, but they could be considered to be in a legal gray zone.

The Railway Operation Law, which has been in effect since its enactment in 1900, stipulates that passengers are only allowed to get on a train if there are available seats. If train service workers let passengers get on a train beyond its seating capacity, the company would be forced to pay a fine or face another type of penalty. This could be interpreted as it being illegal since 1900 for a train to be overcrowded. According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, however, the current interpretation is that train service companies and passengers have a mutual agreement that passengers can get on a train even if seats are not available. There has been no history of any company being punished.

Forming lines

Of course, the overcrowding situation was not ignored. Tokyo streetcars began operating in 1923 as the nation’s first express trains with the aim of easing congestion during rush hour. Later, there was an increase in the number of trains and train cars nationwide.

On the Ginza Line at Shibuya Station, just before and after World War II, station staff hung paper sheets on their chest and back indicating how to form a line on train platforms, and explained the process to passengers so getting on and off trains could go smoothly.

It is believed that because of the efforts made by the station staff to help establish the formation of lines, they were given honors by the then Railways Ministry.

“The formation of lines and precise train schedules was developed to ease congestion,” said traffic commentator Nobuyuki Sato. “The practice suits the earnest and hardworking characteristics of Japanese people.”

Partial recovery

The government and railway companies now place importance on an indicator called the rate of congestion.

Train capacity is calculated by combining the number of seats in a single train car with the number of standing passengers, each of whom are estimated to occupy 0.3 square meters.

The rate of congestion compares the calculated capacity with the actual number of passengers in a single train car. If the rate is 200%, then the train car is holding twice as many passengers as the calculated capacity.

When the rate of congestion became more widely known in fiscal 1975, the average rate of congestion on major train lines in the Tokyo metropolitan area was 221%, according to the transport ministry. In the Osaka and Nagoya metropolitan areas, the average rate was about 200%.

The figures indicate that smaller passengers might be lifted from the floor because they would be squeezed by surrounding passengers. The rate of congestion in Tokyo fell to 163% in fiscal 2018, but there was still virtually no space between passengers. In addition, a ministry official said passengers “felt oppressed,” and congestion during morning and evening rush hours was still serious.

What completely changed the situation was the spread of the novel coronavirus. As requests have been made for people to refrain from going out and to have more people work from home if possible, the number of train passengers has drastically declined.

In June, the number of passengers on the JR Yamanote Line recovered to 60% of the number before the spread of infections. It is estimated, however, that this might increase to only about 70% at most, partly because of the rise in popularity of working remotely.

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) President Yuji Fukasawa revealed in July a plan for the company to be the first railway operator in Japan to introduce a dynamic pricing scheme in which train fares change depending on the time of day.

Assuming that the number of passengers will not completely return to the precoronavirus level, JR East aims to encourage people to ride the train during off-peak hours by raising fares during rush hour. The company wants to secure profits and further ease congestion.

Until the new scheme is realized, JR East will introduce a reward point system for passengers who avoid rush hour.

West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) is also considering reviewing its fare system.

The moves made by railway companies are now being closely watched.

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