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How do railways figure out congestion on their trains?

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One of the stereotypical images of Japan during its years of postwar economic growth were the shiri-oshi (literally "butt-pushers"), railway employees tasked with the job of shoving commuters onto jam-packed rush-hour trains, taking care to keep their limbs and other protuberances from being caught in the closing doors.

The railways and employers did what they could to alleviate the crush. From the 1980s, "flex-time" working hours became a common, although not universal, practice. Train seats were designed to fold up, giving passengers slightly more elbow room.

Using the example of the Odakyu Electric Railway Co, Nikkei Business (Nov. 27) examined the latest moves toward konzatsu kanwa (alleviation of crowding). From next March, it reports, a massive expansion project -- with double parallel tracks in both directions to and from its terminal in the basement of the Odakyu Department Store in Shinjuku -- that has been ongoing for the past 30 years will be completed, a dream first envisaged in the late 1960s.

There's not much question that the expansion is needed. Using the sector linking the neighboring stations of Shimokitazawa and Setagaya Daita, the Odakyu line, according to government indices measuring passenger capacity, is rated the third most congested in the nation, at 192% of rated capacity.

The new timetable to go into effect from March 2018, it is hoped, will reduce crowding by 42 points, from 192% to 150% -- giving not enough space to hold a square dance, but, according to the criteria in use, enough for the standing passengers to read an open newspaper.

Odakyu President Koji Hoshino told the magazine that when conditions improve, he expects that passengers will stop using other lines and shift to Odakyu. Which, if you think about it, means that since reducing congestion attracts more passengers, it results in increased congestion. You can't win.

According to records initially compiled by the former Ministry of Transport, back in the 1970s the average figure on 31 commuter rail sectors in the greater Tokyo area was around 220%. This did not drop below 200% until around the late 1980s.

The decline has continued, reaching 180% around the turn of the century. But little improvement has been seen since 2003, when it dropped close to 160%. During fiscal 2016 the 165% was actually worse than the previous year.

Obtaining accurate data on passenger capacity, however, is an inexact science. One expert is quoted as saying, "We tried to do a count in November, but due to the temperature differences inside and outside the cars, the glass windows steam up and it was hard to look inside."

Rather than rely on visual observation, someone suggested it might be able to get a more accurate count by calculating weight, through checking compression on the cars' hydraulic suspension. Or, using cameras mounted at strategic points inside the cars. Another idea would be to make use of third-party organizations to test the data, which would be compared with that of the railways to confirm validity of the figures.

An official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, however, said from the standpoint of costs, efforts to monitor passenger congestion was "not practical;" but a cynical commentator hinted that revealing the actual figures "might prove embarrassing."

On various lines fluctuations are noted in different months and days, and in any case passengers' own impressions don't seem to jibe with the official figures.

Hoshino predicted that based on the new timetable from next year, more people commuting from stations where train runs originate will be able to sit. This, he pointed out, will have an impact on assessment of residential property values along the line.

That, unfortunately can change as well. The SUUMO real estate site, which rates properties along the various commuter lines, noted that while Musashi Kosugi in Kawasaki -- served by the Toyoko and three JR lines -- had been ranked the most popular residential area for five consecutive years, this year it had fallen to 6th place due to the increased passenger congestion, and more condos sprang up there to take advantage of its convenience.

According to the transport ministry, the 10 most congested lines in the greater Tokyo area, all running at 170% of capacity and above, were the Tozai subway line; JR Sobu line; Odakyu line; JR Yokosuka line; JR Chuo line; Tokyu Denentoshi line; JR Tokaido line; JR Sobu express; Chiyoda subway line; and JR Keihin Tohoku line.

Up to now, the article concludes, commuter railways enjoyed steady passenger demand as more people flocked to greater Tokyo for more employment opportunities and higher wages. But by 2020 or so, population decline is projected, and at this time the railway companies that planned successfully for the future will become more evident. As a more comfortable commute takes on increasingly greater importance, it will hopefully be incorporated into the railways' strategy. Assuming this to be the case, the railways should continue to develop and adopt methods by which to accurately measure levels of congestion.

© Japan Today

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.

9 Comments
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But Japanese commuters are so considerate... Whenever I do find a seat they usually give me plenty of space by leaving the one next to it empty.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Here's a suggestion, how about we fix the problem by not cramming every single person on the archipelago into the Tokyo area, that will certainly fix overcrowding(and a lot of other problems as well)

6 ( +6 / -0 )

The way to solve this is not by building more trains tracks and more lines. The way to solve the problem is by moving places of employment especially government offices out of central Tokyo.

I always thought building the Tokyo City Office in Shinjuku, where Odakyu's terminal is, exemplifies the problem. The station was unbearably overcrowded before the City Office moved there. Most of that office could have and should have been built in Hachioji or somewhere else less central. Smaller offices could also have been built in convenient places for people to visit.

Penalise companies for setting up offices in Central Tokyo.

Think about it. If there were no trains, would it take any longer for people to get to work? Not it they had to walk to work. Workplaces would have to move nearer people instead of people moving in such unpleasant conditions that they are exhausted when they get to work. For most people the commute is more tiring than their work.

How will the Odakyu profit from this expansion? By building condos and so on along the line, which will cause more congestion?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I find it funny when i see people comment that they get empty seats next to them on the train (presumably due to fear of gaijin germs). I have never once had a seat next to me left open. Even if there are other free seats available. Maybe this happens on quiet, country train lines. But not in Tokyo, thats for sure.

What i do see is that people tend leave seats empty next to people who 'man-spread', those who are much larger than the regular seat width, those who look homeless or smell drunk. This has nothing to do with being foreigner or Japanese though. So the free seat next to you may not be due to them being scared of you or being racist, but simply because you are bigger than the average Japanese, meaning that sitting next to you involves being squeezed uncomfortably, or means they need to spill out over the next seat, making them look like the seat hogger.

Flex time is the most practical solution to congestion, but having policies in place does nothing to change the mind of hard headed oyaji managers who wont actually let their staff use it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

considering that every single aspect of life in japan is over-regulated, it is extremely ironic that there is absolutely no concern to train capacity except push in as many people as possible without consideration of safety, comfort, etc.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@NCIS, I see where you took that lol! Today, some teenage guy had the audacity to actually sit down next to me. I was extremely offended. Or was that offensive?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

30 carriages long. First 15 carriages pulls in.

Stop for 30 seconds. Close the door. Train pulls in the next 15 carriages...same again.

Off we go.

It won't add much more to the train journey. If that's your issue...get an earlier train bozo.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Are you telling me that train companies first collected paper tickets by hand, then by automated machinery, and now have a majority of passengers using RFID chipped commuter cards tied to unique user identities for money storage purposes, and no one thought to just write a program that looks at when you which gate you went in at what time and which gate you left at what time and estimates train capacity from that? We've literally got people counting through the windows instead? What century is this again?

maybeperhapsyesDec. 8  10:47 am JST

30 carriages long. First 15 carriages pulls in.

Stop for 30 seconds. Close the door. Train pulls in the next 15 carriages...same again.

Off we go.

I like your outside the box thinking, but terminal stations where there is literally no more track at the end of the platform like Shinjuku and Fujisawa would make this impossible.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"....the 10 most congested lines in the greater Tokyo area... were the Tozai subway line; JR Sobu line"...

That is definitely NOT true, I can say from experience living in western Tokyo and commuting to central Tokyo.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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