Information was released last year detailing the worlds busiest train stations and Japan pretty much monopolised the top 50 list with only five of them not in this country. It’s not until the number 24 position that a non-Japanese station appears by way of Paris’ Gare du Nord! Of course it’s a little uncertain how the data was calculated and how accurate it is as India’s stations are not represented in the chart despite reportedly handling millions of passengers every day.
It was no surprise really that the top spot was held by Shinjuku station and last year there was a documentary on Channel Five in the UK detailing 24 hours in the life of this station. It aired just a couple of days before we took a trip back to England last August. I tried to find it online when I returned to Japan but was unsuccessful and inevitably I forgot all about it. However, my memory was jogged slightly by having a guest to guide round Tokyo recently and when I mentioned the station being the worlds busiest one I went a step further a few days later and found it online.
You can watch it here.
This 45 minute programme offered a fascinating insight into something that I, like millions of others, probably just take for granted. Tokyo is of course a mega sized metropolis and at its heart is this station which is like no other. The narrator bombards the viewer with a barrage of incredible statistics. Three million people pass through at rush hour and a train arrives every three seconds on one of 35 platforms. At peak times there are only two minutes between trains on the same line. 4000 people get off. each train and another 4000 then get on in order to keep everything on track. 25,000 trains go through the overground and underground platforms at Shinjuku every day.
The guards only have 30 seconds to load each train and there have of course been some very famous images over the years of brute force pretty much being used to fill the carriages with the commuters squeezed in like sardines in a can. In fact, the trains have double the numbers they were designed to take and I’m so thankful that I only have to ride in such conditions a couple of times a year!
It’s 1.38am at the station as the documentary begins and its all empty and quiet but not for long!! As some expert says “Shinjuku never really closes, it just sleeps” and no sooner has the last train and all its drunken revellers left, and its time for the cleaners to work their magic and clean the place which is the size of 6o football pitches. Only a few hours later and the working day begins again and believe it or not many staff members sleep at the station and even have a special alarm clock; an automatically inflating, rising bed that lifts the sleepers head!
“Only perfection will do” is the staff philosophy and their discipline, dedication and teamwork is second to none. A few seconds late is late in Japan and one guy even says that being late is stealing time from people. Commuters seem to rely (almost too much) on the trains getting them to work exactly on time in a country where people just aren’t late for work. This means that everyone has no choice but to pile on to the trains with the aforementioned guards giving them a helping hand at times. There is supposedly no time to wait for the next train and slow boarding can cause delays which lead to a dangerous numbers of people congregating on the platforms. It’s a situation which can spiral out of control very quickly if the trains don’t run like clock work.
If it wasn’t difficult enough just maintaining an efficient and reliable service at the best of times then think what its like when you throw into the equation the likes of earthquakes, typhoons, terrorist attacks, suicides and drunken revellers. The greatest fear is total shutdown which, despite the constant relentless pressure, rarely ever happens but of course on the 11th May 2011 that is exactly what happened and that date showed that Tokyo finds it very difficult to function without Shinjuku station.
I’ve seen this mammoth-sized station in a different light since viewing this programme and can appreciate the grand-ness of the place and its dedicated workers. The select few which featured in this documentary showed that there is hardly any time to draw breath as dozens of people pounce on these almost-robotic workers to ask questions galore as soon as they appear on the scene in the parts which are open to the public. It really is crazy and the staff need to know the station inside-out as well as the Shinjuku area which tourists and locals alike enquire about.
I love this station. As an engineer I find it an amazing object, that works really well! Though it is working so well because of the very high “culture of traveling via public transport” that is so characteristic for the Japanese people but at the same time unique in the scale of the world.
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