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