Train conductors left behind as Toei Subway becomes automated

by Ryan Nakashima

In another verse from the machine-replaces-man songbook, Toei Subway is replacing the conductor on half of its Tokyo lines with a bevy of machines, including a safety wall that has been making its way through Toei Mita Line stations across Tokyo this summer.

Behind a “platform gate,” a conductor makes a final safety check as the train departs.

The 1.3-meter-high “platform gate,” with its automatic doors, will compensate for a lost safety factor when trains on the north-south jagging Mita Line adopt a motorman-only system Sept. 26.

Tasks once performed by the conductor at the rear of the train, such as closing the doors and checking the platform before departure, will now be performed by the motorman with the aid of the platform gate and a video monitor in the cab.

As on many trains already, the voice announcing the next station will be automated, as will the air-conditioning, tasks previously handled by the conductor. If anything amiss occurs inside the train, it will have to be communicated to the motorman, at the front of the train, through an intercom.

Toei officials say the checks and balances in the new system ensure all the procedures under the two-person crew system will still be carried out.

“If you ask me which is safer, the one-man or the two-man driver system, I’d say both are safe,” said Hideaki Suzuki, who’s in charge of the construction-end of the changeover for Toei.

“We wouldn’t build a system that isn’t safe,” added Hitone Arai, the public relations chief.

Toei officials acknowledge the 5 billion yen plan will free up 91 conductors for other duties, saving the carrier about 500 million yen a year, but they insist the reason they’re making the change is the line’s tieup with Eidan Subway’s Namboku Line, which also enters Tokyo from the north.

The tieup, which will join the two lines on a new track from Mita to Meguro stations, requires them to adopt the Namboku Line’s one-person crew system, which has been in place since 1991.

Tokyu Corp. is also adopting the motorman-only system on the Meguro Line, from Meguro to Musashi-Kosugi Station to the west.

It is also installing monitors and a “platform door” similar to the platform gate. The line, which is currently part of the Mekama Line, will make a new debut Sunday.

Toei officials said more than 90 percent of respondents at the first station they surveyed, Nishi-Takashimadaira, had positive opinions of the platform gate. However, they didn’t ask anyone what they thought of the motorman-only system.

Sumiko Hara, a 45-year-old housewife on her way home from shopping in Jimbocho, told a reporter that although she felt the wall increased safety, she won’t feel comfortable with just a motorman on the train.

“I think it’s important for someone to ride in the front and the back,” Hara said. “It’s like a family, father in front, mother in back. If she was missing, I think I’d be worried.”

Another rider, Mikio Sato, 45, also criticized the new system.

“Riders quickly jump onto and off of the train. The monitor’s small, right, so it can’t pick it up. Or when disabled people are having trouble in the doors, the monitors can’t see everything.”

Jimbocho Station Master Shingo Sato said the missing conductor will put a strain on riders in wheelchairs who must call ahead to arrange to have someone help them off the train. “If I forget or lose track of time, there won’t be anyone to help them get off the train.”

Toei says the number of attendants on subway platforms will remain the same.

Toei’s Oedo Line, which comes into the city from the west and will loop around central Tokyo, will also only have just a motorman on its trains, but there won’t be any safety wall on the platforms. That line will be completed in December.