Quick Insight

What Makes Tokyo’s Subway the Best in the World?

Following our deep dive into megacities, our Quick Insights blog is taking a look at one of the most famous megacities in the world: Tokyo. Specifically, Tokyo’s world-famous subway system.

The history of Tokyo’s underground system set it apart from much of the world from the beginning. The first line, the Giza line, opened in 1927. It was not only the first underground line in Japan but in the whole of Asia. Since construction first began, there has very rarely been a time when there was not further expansion or line extension being undertaken beneath Tokyo’s streets.

It was the impact of the Second World War that arguably led to travel in Tokyo being so unique. As Japan rebuilt its cities after the war, it did so without abundant access to petrochemicals, unlike places like the US. Thus, while many countries around the world with high levels of petrochemical production and access shaped their post-war infrastructure recovery around roads and automobile transportation, the Japanese government zeroed in on passenger rail. Tokyo’s extensive subway system has exemplified Japanese rail transport ever since.

As of 2020, the combined network that makes up Tokyo’s subway system contains 286 stations and 13 lines – reaching a total length of 188.9 miles of track. Each day, 8.66 million people travel on the subway. For comparison, the London tube system transports 2 million passengers per day. Even when adjusted for population size, the number of passengers travelling on Tokyo’s subway daily outstrips that of London significantly. Beyond the subway itself 40 million people travel via Tokyo’s railways daily – a testament to city’s rail infrastructure.

Image source: Shutterstock

Efficiency With Ease

The system is world-renowned for its trains running on time, all the time. Despite the fact that it is one of the only systems in the world to integrate above-ground and long distance trains into the tunneling system, it manages to maintain an impeccable record for timing. Maintenance plays a critical part in its repuation for timeliness. Inspections of track and tunnel infrastructure take place every night and any minor damage is immediately corrected which prevents major repairs, which are often highly disruptive to services. In addition to this, every four years train cars are dismantled, inspected by hand and thoroughly cleaned. As a result, every train runs like new.

A somewhat amusing side effect of Tokyo’s subway success is how common it is to see people fast asleep on the train before suddenly waking up at their station at the exact moment it comes to a halt. Passengers simply set an alarm on their phone for the exact time they know they will reach their station and sleep until it rings. A testament to the fact that the system indeed “runs like clockwork” .

Trains + Tech = Tokyo

Tunneling beneath the “most innovative city in the world”, it is hardly surprising that Tokyo’s Metro system has embraced cutting-edge technologies. Akiyoshi Yamumura, Tokyo Metro’s CEO, explained in an interview with McKinsey that his company spearheaded the “development of a so-called congestion-measurement system that uses cameras and AI to identify which [stations] are crowded and then create routes to avoid them”. The system is the first AI of its kind to be installed in Japan. According to Yamumura, the AI “can accurately grasp the number of people, not unlike the human eye – even while a train is passing by.”

Alongside such system-wide technological advancements, individual stations boast high-tech solutions to everyday commuter issues. Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest station, sees 3.64 million passengers pass through it daily. To manage this record-breaking number of passengers traversing a station with over 200 exits, Shinjuku has its very own app to help people find their way around the station. It is hardly a surprise that this station has an entire documentary dedicated the way it operates under such pressure so smoothly.

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Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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