Saturday, November 29, 2014

National transport infrastructure: the importance of a national train system

I speak a lot about Japan on this blog, so I might as well explain where I'm coming from. The intro gives personal background, if you're not interested (I don't blame you), skip to the "End of Background Info" line.

I was raised in the suburb of Boucherville, in a particularly car-dependent area of it (there are walkable areas in the suburb, I was just not in one). Nonetheless, I was never a car lover growing up, I waited a long time to get my driver's license, I was maybe 19 or 20 when I finally decided to get it. Though my area had no retail or services in proximity, it had decent transit service to get to the subway of Montréal and I used transit to get to CÉGEP and university after high school, only driving regularly after getting a job.

Though I didn't think of urbanism much growing up, I recognize that my appreciation for walkable areas is an old one in me. When I was young, I visited the old areas of Québec City and fell in love with it. I told my parents "I can go there and spend days just walking the city and be content that it was time well spent".

Of course, now I know that Québec City is an old, dense European core surrounded by endless North American sprawl. So it is a city full of charm, as long as you keep to the old city and neighboring areas only.

Still, I never really connected this to urbanism much. I even had a phase where I appreciated a lot cars as everyday transport tools and examined the merits of cars a lot, concentrating on fuel economy and efficiency in small cars rather than sports cars. I bought my first car in 2008, the year after I started working, a manual 2.4L Saturn ION 2007 leftover from the previous year. Got a hell of a deal on it too, worth learning to drive stick for it. For 5 years, I did 110 km a day of commuting by car (around 70 miles), 45 minutes each way. Spending my days at work behind a computer and driving everywhere, I gained a lot of weight. Commuting apart, going on a drive was a pleasure of mine, I especially loved driving on forest roads after dark. I didn't speed, I just liked the sensation of driving with the headlights on in the middle of a wild forest on a sinuous road, illuminated by the dashboard lights.

In 2009, a significant event happened which shaped my attitude to transport and awakened me to urbanism. I went to Japan. I had always been interested in and loved Japanese culture, and I admit to being somewhat of an otaku. What I hadn't expected when I went to Japan was falling in love with Japanese cities and its transport system. I was already taking pictures of normal streets and urban areas that most people ignored on my first trip.

5 years later, this photo still cracks me up
I came back to Québec and I told my friends and family: "I left North America seeing cars as freedom... I came back and I looked upon my car as a weight I had to drag around". This tool of "liberty" had become a tool of "oppression" in my mind. Why did I need to get around in a cage of steel and glass that separated me from the world? I realized my world was one of bubbles: my home, my car, my cubicle, and I went from bubble to bubble all day long.


OK, so where am I going with this? Well, as I said, my conception of freedom of mobility shifted after a trip in Japan. So why did I feel so free in Japan, much freer than I feel in North America? Hint: look at the title.

Japanese cities tend to be very walkable, which is awesome, thanks to lax zoning which allows developments to follow an economic logic favoring the efficiency of density and proximity and a government that doesn't see as its primary purpose to provide free high-speed roads everywhere. But all this walkability and density would be wasted if people had no way to travel from one area to the other without cars.

That is why I'm not so keen on the "build worthwhile places first... then, maybe, transit" that some New Urbanists are doing. Yes, New Urbanist subdivisions are much better than traditional suburban ones, but in the end, in my mind, they are golden cages. Fine, they are walkable and have nice places, but whenever people want or have to go elsewhere or people from other areas want to visit, they need to take cars. Ultimately, the ability of people to get around is still conditional to the ownership of a motor vehicle.

Even in cities with good transit in North America, the restrictions to mobility are still much felt, because as soon as you leave a certain area, transit service just... stops. You sometimes have coach buses or Amtrak/VIA Rail going to other cities, but all the area between cities is often "off-limits" or extremely hard to reach.

In North America, regional travel is dependent on highways, high-speed roads built by State and provincial governments to allow people to go anywhere. But transit along highways is notoriously bad, highways are built for cars first and foremost (the French word is telling there: "autoroute", literally "automobile road").

In Japan, it is very different. Regional travel depends on an extraordinarily extensive rail system that dominates inter-city travel between 300 and 700 km (200 to 450 miles).
When we talk of trains in Japan, what most people think of is the Shinkansen, the famous "bullet train".

However, shinkansen lines aren't that common, most cities aren't directly connected to it. The real unsung hero of the Japanese transit system is the humble regional rail system which is extraordinarily extensive, and is the reason why when demanding directions on Google Maps for Japan, Google Maps defaults to transit.
Part of a map of rail lines in Japan
Inside of a regional train, the two boys in white shirts and black pants are likely students going to school, an example of how inter-city trips and commutes overlap on the same trains rather than having two separate systems for commuters and for regional travel

Interior of a train on a private line to Nikko

Regional train station with train waiting

The rail system is essentially as developed as regional highways in North America. Most areas worth going to are connected to rail lines, which is likely due to the fact that cities without rail access see their growth stunted. As a result, there is a feeling once in Japan that you only need to get to a train station, and the rest of the country becomes accessible to you. It may take a while, be expensive and require connections, but finding your way is easy and you know every stop will be well-organized. These trains are why I felt so free in Japan, almost no area is off-limits to people without cars thanks to these rail lines. At least, no area with any significant population. And the stations themselves are located right next to where you want to go most of the time: you get off the train into a pedestrian's paradise, even in small towns, rather than in the middle of nowhere.

Here are some attributes of the Japanese train system which makes it so awesome and which help define freedom of mobility differently.

1- The access points of the system are evident and well-located

Of course, we're talking of the train stations here. Train stations are generally located inside cities themselves, near the downtown area where most jobs and services are located, and at points of high population density. This is largely because developments flow to the train station naturally. In fact, as I mentioned in my last post, in real estate listings in Japan, the closest train station is one of the essential pieces of information provided.

Example of apartment listing on, with information about nearest train stations front and center, this apartment is in Furano, a town of about 25 000 people, far from any big city
Sapporo station

Kooriyama station
Plaza in front of Nikko train station

Aizu Wakamatsu station

So trains offer downtown-to-downtown travel, most destinations are likely located within walking distance of train stations, and bus services tend to originate from train stations, extending even more accessibility.

2- Taking the train is as easy as taking the subway or a municipal bus

In North America, there is this obsession to differentiate long-distance trips from commuting trips as if the two needed absolutely to be treated differently. It's fine to wait on the quay for a subway or a commuter rail line, but for long-distance lines, it's not. People need to line up at the station and have tickets checked by employees before being allowed to go on the quay where the train is waiting for them. Pure lunacy. Because, yeah, if we want good consumer service, I'm sure airlines are the ones to copy, right?

In Japan, not only can people wait on the quay for any train, even the Shinkansen, but in most cases, there is no reservation needed. You don't need to reserve a seat or buy tickets a long time before. You show up, you look at these boards showing what is the fare to go where you want to go...
Destination and fare board at Kooriyama station
... you buy the ticket at an automatic machine, put it in the machine to get to the quay (and take it back so you can leave at the destination) and you're done. 1 or 2 minutes and you're done, even less if you just use an IC card where you don't need a ticket, just scan it to get in and scan it to get out. Just like taking the subway. It is one system that helps make taking the train a casual experience rather than a special event.

3- The same trains serve both local trips and regional trips

There are expresses, but in many cases, trains stop at all station, even when some are within the same city. This allows regional trains with lines going on for 100 km or more (60 miles) to also be useful for commuters within cities they go across. It's the same train, the same fares apply and it helps to increase ridership for no additional cost as the same service serves both as commuter rail and as regional rail.... just like highways are currently used both by commuters and by long-distance travelers. Again, it means that people going farther out will be taking the same train they may use on their commutes, just stay on it a bit longer. It again helps to make taking the train a casual experience and it means that stations get all-day service, unlike commuter rail in North America that exists only 3 hours a day.

4- Since the rail exists, development grows along the rail lines

This is a bit different from the others as it's not about consumer service per se, but it is very relevant here in keeping areas connected. When cities sprawl in North America, they generally do so beyond the reach of their structural rapid transit system (at least, where it even exists). Developments therefore follow highways to keep a transport connection to the rest of the metropolitan area. In Japan, because regional rail extends far beyond the limits of current metropolitan developments, new developments can follow rail rather than highways.

Let's do this visually, let's take a North American city with both highways and LRT or subways in the central city:

A North American city, the urban area is in grey, highways are the black solid lines, rapid transit is the dotted red lines
When this city's population increases, where will developments concentrate? Well, the new residents still want to have access to the city's services and jobs and so will latch on to currently available rapid transport links, and the only rapid transport links that exist in greenfield areas are... highways.
In yellow, the new developments, concentrated along highways
These new developments will have no transit connection, or a very poor one. It's the perfect recipe for car-dependent development.

Now, let's take a Japanese city, where highways skirt around urban areas and rail lines with constant train service cross the area.

Where will new developments occur? In this case, both rail and highways exist in undeveloped areas, but rail connections lead directly to the downtown area, not highways. So new developments will follow the rail lines that already exist:
These new developments will start with decent, fast rapid transit service to the city from day one. Which will shape the form they take and allows most destinations, even the more recent ones, to reliably be within reach of the rail system.

Bringing this freedom of mobility to North America

OK, the Japanese have us beat, now, can we import this model?

Some would say that we don't have the rail system to do so and it would be expensive to build one... except the truth is North America already has rail lines connecting most cities. Most North American cities built from the 19th century onwards were built along railroads. There is a lot of under-used rail lines or ROW in North America, rebuilding a regional rail system could be largely done by reactivating unused or under-used rail lines. The biggest issues in doing so is that rail lines have been given over to freight train companies which jealously defend their priority on the lines. Personally, I'm of the mind that ownership of the tracks and of train companies should be separated. Currently, freight train companies aren't interested in optimal use of tracks, because doing so would impact their number one business: carrying freight. Passenger rail can then only exist within the holes of freight schedules. The best solution would be to either legally impose the separation of track and train business, so the track owners would prefer to allow as many trains on their tracks rather than favoring one customer over the other, or simply nationalizing tracks (which appeals to my socialist side). The UK and France have this model currently.

The current rail system in North America is like if we allowed freight truck companies to buy highways, and they would then forbid their competitors on them and put quotas on the number of vehicles that could use their highways so as to preserve speed for their own trucks. It would be disastrous for highway capacity and highway-dependent developments... just like the current system is horrible for transit.

Amtrak and VIA would also have to revise completely how they deliver service and end this completely stupid artificial separation between long-distance trips and commuter service. Both can and should be served by the exact same lines.

Some would say still that this is too hard, that we should use the highways we have instead and run buses instead of trains.

Now, the big problem of transit piggybacking off of car-oriented infrastructure is that it is piggybacking off of car-oriented infrastructure. Meaning that the areas that are most readily accessible are car-oriented areas where people get dropped off in huge parking lots far from density and walkable areas. For example, here is a bus stop that I used recently on a vacation in Mont-Tremblant when I decided to take the bus.

Yes, that is just a gas station, without any sign that buses stop there or that you can buy bus tickets there. Why there rather than another gas station? Probably because it's closest to the highway, but how could someone who has never taken the bus know that it's where regional buses stop? They can't unless they do a search on the 'net. And the core of the village is a good 2 kilometers away from this gas station. And there is no information about where you can go anywhere.

Everything that made the train stations in Japan attractive and gave a feeling that you can go places easily is lacking here. The area is not walkable, nor near the downtown area, the area where the network can be accessed is not easily identifiable, and there is no feeling that you are even accessing a NETWORK, you only know there is a bus route, but you don't know anything about it and the network it is a part of. It feels like an ad hoc service, not a real national network of car-less mobility.

Can this be corrected? Probably not, because going to the downtown area in buses at every stop would slow down the service so terribly that it would be completely uncompetitive with cars, whereas trains in Japan are frequently as fast or faster than cars, even the regional trains, since they have exclusive ROW all the way from station to station. Buses can work but only if they act like airplanes: taking you from one bus terminal in the downtown of a big city to another bus terminal in the downtown of another big city, with few or no stops in between, putting off-limits all the areas you travel through.


I think it is important to think about regional mobility without cars, to offer a national transport infrastructure that can link up cities all over the country and tie walkable areas together. This is sorely lacking in North America, there is no such system, though there used to be (because we subsidized its direct competitor, highways, and pushed it to bankruptcy). Otherwise, no matter how good places we build, even if there is decent city transit, it will still feel like a golden cage to people getting around without cars. True freedom of mobility is dependent on a complete train system that is reliable, easily accessible and can easily serve both to go 500 km or to go 10 km away to the next town over.

Such a system also creates a backbone along which development can occur rather than having it sprawl along highways. It's not that most people will use these trains frequently, they may not, but the important thing is: it is there, and people know that it is there and they can depend on it to go almost anywhere they want.


  1. Do passenger and freight trains share track in Japan?

    1. I don't know for sure, some tracks probably though.

      Still, I have to mention that freight by rail is relatively rare in Japan. It seems ironic, considering how well-known Japanese rail is, but Japan is an island where all major cities are located on the coast, and where the inland areas are relatively resource-poor. Which means that there is little need for freight by train as most stuff comes by the sea and freight tends to not go very far, which makes freight by trucks a better option.

    2. JR East runs (electric) freight trains on its regional train network. Mostly during the night, but often major stations have freight trains run through them during the day as well. They seem to be scheduled around the passenger trains during the day and "fit in" between regularly scheduled passenger trains.

      Not having lived in other regions I don't know what's common elsewhere in Japan.

  2. Interesting post.

    How much does it cost to travel somewhere in Japan by car vs train?

    For example, if I want to go on a day trip from Port Credit to Niagara Falls and back, it costs $32 by GO bus (I think it was about the same for the seasonal train service).

    If I drive, I can park for $5 within walking distance of the falls, and even the closest parking lot a stone's throw from the falls is only $20 per day. It's a bit more than 200km, so at 10L/km and $1.20/L gas it's about $25 for gas. $25+$5 = $30.

    And these longer distance trips are I think more likely to be done in groups, with family or friends, so if there's 4 adults in a car, it's still $30 to drive, but $128 by transit! If it's 2 adults and 2 kids, you can get a group transit pass and it's "only" $64.

    So not only is it almost 3 hours each way by transit (maybe as little as 2 hours for the seasonal trains) vs a bit more than an hour to drive (maybe 90-100min if there's traffic), but if you already have a car, it's cheaper to drive.

    VIA Rail is a bit faster than GO (about 2 hours) but about $50 instead of $32.

    Toronto to Montreal by train, which is the busiest rail corridor in Canada is a minimum of $44 one way so $88 two ways. It's about $130 for gas if you drive. So depending on how close the end points of your trip are to downtown in terms of local transit costs, and parking costs, it might be cheaper to take the train for up to 2 people. But a bigger group (3+) will be better off driving in terms of cost. Time wise, it's pretty even fortunately, although assuming the end points aren't in overly remote suburban locations.

    1. From what I've seen, it's about 20-30 cents per km by train, but lines are mostly profitable. Of course, highways are all tolled, so if you want to go fast with your car, it will likely be very expensive.

      Still, as you pointed out, if you travel in a group, a car may be more economical, especially if you suppose that you already have a car and so the only cost of travel is the gas. But the trains are still there if you're traveling alone or only with 1 or 2 other people, and it gives people the freedom to split up and go their own way. And especially, a national train system dispenses people from needing to buy a car to be able to get places.

      As to vacation spots, there are plenty of vacation spots near train stations, or within a relatively short bus ride from stations. The Japanese do go to onsens (hot springs) in more remote areas, though how many take the train vs a car for that I cannot say.

      I don't have the data for mode share for industrial employment. This is indeed one of the cases where bus shuttles from train stations might work well as travel demand is very concentrated at peak hours and you have a large group of people going to the same place at the same time.

  3. Also, there's two types of destinations that might be trickier to serve by transit.

    One is vacation type travel to non-urban destination, whether that's to the beach, to the cottage or just to a state/provincial/national park like Jasper or Algonquin.

    From what I can understand, in the pre-automobile era, you had more resorts which were served by train. And then if you wanted something more remote, maybe you could go by horse. The resort could be a big hotel, with the Banff Springs Hotel being the most famous in Canada. You also had resort towns. Is this still a common way to go on vacation in Japan? How often do people visit more remote places? I suppose even then you could use bus shuttles.

    The other is industrial employment. Is getting to jobs in factories, warehouses, etc one of the rare cases where much of the population uses cars, or is transit/bike/walk mode share high even then?

    1. Regarding your last question, I was curious too, so I decided to spend a little while perusing the coastline of Tokyo bay, esp. near the Kawasaki Ward, on Google Maps:,139.7463843,15473m/data=!3m1!1e3

      There you can see very industrial zoning, yet even so, there are train lines running right into the industrial areas (there are a number of little artificial islands, each with a train line dead-ending in the center of each island).,139.7164982,14z (map view for clarity; here's the Earth view,139.7164982,6060m/data=!3m1!1e3 )

      And in these industrial areas, there still appear to be ample sidewalks everywhere, and crosswalks at the intersections.,139.7226662,3a,75y,34.83h,66.96t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s4r7DZYMbxlgVckkgX0n7Jg!2e0

      Next, the way zoning works in Japan, there are residential areas with high density, single-family detached homes just on the other side of an elevated highway (marked Hamakawasaki on google maps). The elevated highways allow pedestrians to walk straight into the industrial areas without presumably any trouble.,139.720897,379m/data=!3m1!1e3

      Lastly, there are also plenty of parking lots in these industrial areas, especially in the outer artificial islands in that area, which appear to be heavy industrial, no residential, and no trains.,139.7556175,3027m/data=!3m1!1e3

      There are even (albeit modest) parks!,139.744673,757m/data=!3m1!1e3

      Here's a baseball diamond and other green area right by a nightmarish highway interchange and seas of parking lots:,139.6788916,759m/data=!3m1!1e3

      In street view, I see buses, so it may be that buses are used more than personal cars in those areas.,139.7606841,3a,64.8y,103.3h,78.65t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1szf1KQQ9W06l_gajZB8GgUw!2e0

      So it seems that the answer is "yes" :) All modes are used - trains are used almost everywhere, pushing deep into many industrial areas and absent in only a few places where cars and buses have access, but sidewalks are still present almost everywhere.

      BONUS: Even on these industrial islands there are some SFDRs and conveneince stores!,139.7244193,3a,90y,79.14h,92.31t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1svNGdgPdZnyrtuv_DtCOxkA!2e0

    2. Actually... Jasper and Banff/Lake Louise are where they are because of the railroads: Canadian Pacific heavily promoted Lake Louise as a tourist destination. The same is true of the Great Northern and Glacier National Park. Even Niagara Falls is serviceable by rail, though the trains don't get as close to the falls as Rainbow Bridge does: the Falls are on a plausible high-speed rail line from New York to Toronto, and once travel time from New York to the Falls is 3 hours, it doesn't matter thaaaat much if the train station is a few km farther away from the Falls than we'd like.

  4. Sounds like Japan's rail system is a lot like Europe's, both of which are the exact opposite of the US's and Canada's. My understanding of Europe's situation is that the passenger rail business is profitable, but freight is not. On mixed lines, freight trains have to move fast to keep from interfering with the passenger trains, which means they have to be shorter and using more powerful locomotives, plus they must have spurs and sidings so they can get out of the way. This makes it much more costly for sure, so more freight ends up moving by truck, which is also simpler when crossing international borders. Of course huge amounts of freight go by truck in the US as well, but it seems like our freight rail business is more dominated by heavy, bulky, lower-value commodities, leading to the long lumbering freight trains and generally mediocre track conditions. Is there any place where freight and passenger rail coexist in a relatively equal and profitable manner, at least in the developed world?

    1. I don't think passenger rail hurts freight rail too much. The major issues that reduce freight by rail in Europe are rather:

      1- different track gauges between some countries, which would force trains to stop at a border and unload cargo to another train.
      2- freight trains are economically efficient for long-distance transport of heavy and bulky merchandise, often natural resources. In the US, there is a lot of cross-continental movement of goods, especially coal and oil. In Europe, resources tend to be consumed closer to where they come from, and for short distance trips, trains just aren't very efficient as they require to be loaded and unloaded at certain stations, with trucks ferrying goods to and fro these stations. Also, as many European countries have coasts, boats tend to be much more useful too.

      Russia and China still ship plenty of freight by rail despite relatively high use of tracks for passenger rail, but they are very large countries with plenty of national resources and manufacturing industries. Use of rail for freight seems to be more correlated with land area, amount of natural resource extraction and manufacturing still occurring than it is to passenger rail.

    2. Europe also tends to ship things by water transport, which is rather harder in most of the US. Historically, European freight rail was hampered by the fact that it was run mostly by the nationalized railroads, which meant that borders were problematic, and cross-border service required lots of coordination and a change of locomotive at the least. And for whatever reason, Europe still hasn't adopted such "modern" innovations as automatic couplings on freight trains, possibly due to inability to set a standard that everyone would agree to. But from everything I've been reading, Europe is trying to catch up the to US in terms of freight rail service, and the deregulation of the freight market has been helping considerably.

  5. Amtrak is currently in litigation with freight rail companies about prioritization

    Also, no-frills or "Chinatown" bus services have become popular for intercity trips. They're very good if you're just trying to get from City A to City B. They go from city center to city center and are cheaper than trains.

    There are a couple of problems with rail service down here that are more important than conflicts with freight companies. One is that the Federal Railroad Administration has mandated passenger rail standards and purchasing requirements that are absurd in comparison to other countries -- for example, Amtrak was originally going to use off-the-shelf TGV parts for Acela, but the FRA forced them to a) make everything bigger and heavier so that it's a tank on rails and b) have certain portions of the manufacturing process take place in the US, which didn't have any companies making those parts, so the thing ended up being vastly more expensive than it should be. Acela is still the most profitable service Amtrak runs.

    Train service is also hampered by the same narrow-minded, parochial NIMBYism all too common in cities and towns. I swear they like to oppose things just to oppose them, or maybe it's a power fix. Anyways, they they don't want the noise and vibration of a train going through their towns, even though they put up with the noise, vibration and pollution of their automobiles.

  6. When I was at university in Japan (east of Tokyo) I used to take the train across Tokyo on the Yokosuka line to Yokohama to visit a friend. This was how I discovered that regional rail used the same tracks as local trains: sometimes my trip would take me hours, and then sometimes just over an hour. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why. One day when I was starting to get better at speaking and reading Japanese I realized that there were actually three levels of service on the same line: futsu (local), kaisoku (rapid) and shin-kaisoku (express). Suddenly I understood why, when I was on a train that seemed to take forever, other trains would whiz by as we waited in the station. The rapid and express trains went faster with limited stops, and served a long-distance commuter or regional market.

    It was an ah-ha moment that really started my interest in the way the Japanese approach urbanism and transportation.