Tokyo’s ring of steel

Love it or loathe it, the Yamanote Line rail loop keeps the Japanese capital smoothly on track


Who would have thought that something that chases its tail all day for a living could be so incredibly important to the workings of a major metropolis?

OK, so Tokyo’s humble Yamanote Line, whose pea-green, 11-car trains link 29 stations over a looping route of 34.5 km, may not have the glamour of Japan’s world-famous shinkansen bullet trains, or the allure of the Romance Car as it heads off to the hills and hot springs in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Yet for sheer, hardworking utility, astounding punctuality and frequency and the connections it makes with other rail routes, there’s nothing to compare with East Japan Railway Company’s Yamanote Line.

All of which means that the Yamanote Line — with its cushioned seats a New Yorker would die for and wide, spacious carriages a Londoner could only dream of — is an icon of public transportation the world over. Day in and day out, it serves as the key transport artery for the greater Tokyo conurbation and its 20-odd million inhabitants.

“The punctuality, I believe, is the first thing any foreigner would notice, especially bearing in mind that the Yamanote Line serves some of the busiest train stations in the world,” says Dutch Attache for Transport Michiel de Lijster, who rides the green wonder several times a week.

The Yamanote Line was born of various smaller train lines that date back to 1885. That year, a steam engine connection between Shinagawa, in Tokyo’s southeast, and Akabane to the northwest (no longer on the line), was established and dubbed the Shinagawa Line.

Other lines along the Tokyo perimeter were gradually and haphazardly joined to the Shinagawa Line as it was converted from steam to electricity, before, in 1909, it was given its present name, after the hilly area of northern Tokyo.

In 1925, the remaining north-south gap between Kanda and Ueno stations was filled in, making the Yamanote Line the closed circuit circumnavigating the Imperial Palace that it is today. And when the ring of steel was formed, the power surged: The Yamanote Line became the conduit of human energy driving Tokyo’s ascent to one of the world’s greatest capital cities.

With an estimated daily ridership of between 3 million and 5 million passengers, the Yamanote Line is easily on a par with New York City’s entire subway system, which daily shuttles around 4.8 million passengers through no fewer than 468 stations.

To accommodate the daily tsunami of commuters, at rush-hour peaks as many as 50 Yamanote Line trains circulate at once, half going clockwise and half going counterclockwise, pulling into stations at roughly 2-minute intervals. On their rail-bound roaming, the station farthest north through which they pass is Tabata; to the east, Uguisudani; to the south, Osaki; to the west, Shinjuku.

Some carriages, nicknamed “cattle cars,” feature six doors on each side, rather than the standard four, to facilitate the flow of passengers on and off. Fold-up seats on them create more standing room during the morning stampede.

To further maximize capacity, the carriage of the model E231-500 trains introduced in 2002 was given 8 cm more width than the predecessor model 205, boosting the maximum capacity per 11-car train from 1,500 to 1,600 compressed souls.

Add up all these factors, plus load-sharing by other rail routes coming on line, and it’s clear why the Yamanote Line’s “shirioshi butai (butt-pusher squads),” the fellows who once eased commuters on board with a little heave-ho, are now a thing of the past.

Yamanote Line traffic usually flows like water. But with so many trains hauling so many people about, it is inevitable that some occasional logistic snafus occur.

None is more unwelcome than the chaos that ensues when someone ends it all by jumping in front of an oncoming train. Last year there were 18 so-called jinshin jiko (human accidents), JR East spokesman Koichi Ueno said in an assertion which may surprise many regular users, for whom announcements of jinshin jiko delays seem far more frequent. According to officials, most jinshin jiko are suicides.

When a passenger jumps, the driver immediately stops the train, confirms the condition of the victim, checks for any damage to train machinery (brakes are particularly susceptible to impact) and communicates all findings to both the control center and his partner minding the back of the train.

Suicide delays generally last about 30 minutes, but can go much longer. JR East bills families of suicide jumpers for damages, with the requested amount commensurate with how many train lines are affected and for how long, said Shunichi Sekiguchi, another spokesman. Officials adamantly refused to discuss exact figures or the company’s rationale for the policy.

Whether it is a suicide or something more trivial that stops a train on its tracks, JR East does its best to ensure that each problem is cleared up swiftly and efficiently.

At the first report of trouble, staffers at the control room, located at an undisclosed location in Tokyo, fly into action.

In times past, the scene would be of men shouting, “Dentaaatsu! Dentaaaaatsu! (Message coming throuuugh! Message coming throuuuuugh!” over the wires to crew on the ground.

“It was a craft,” recalls Ueno, who once worked on such operations. “If you weren’t good at talking, you couldn’t handle traffic control. You had to speak quickly — but too quickly and there could be errors.”

Now much of the communication is done on screen by computer, and the control room is quieter. (All the same, the key task of recasting the dia (short for “diagram”), a paper schedule of Yamanote Line runs that stretches the length of a room, must be done manually.)

Reacting to trouble on the line is not for the faint of heart. Officials say the challenge is to balance speed with caution, as it is essential to prevent so-called iregyuraa (irregular) events from causing catastrophe.

Prevention takes time. In November 2005, for instance, service was halted for more than five hours as crews checked whether train instrumentation had been damaged by a slack power cable. Approximately 170,000 morning rush-hour passengers were affected.

Industrious by day, the Yamanote rests at night — a fact that puzzles foreigners accustomed to round-the-clock service in metropolitan areas abroad. However, JR East officials explain that this is necessary for line maintenance.

So, whither the Yamanote Line of the future? While JR East is developing tie-up operations in retailing, advertising and real estate, things seem likely to stay much the same with the Yamanote Line itself.

Officials said there were no firm plans to add a new Yamanote Line station, for example along the longest uninterrupted stretch of track between Shinagawa and Tamachi.

Now that the latest E231-500 trains incorporate such high-tech features as computer-assisted speed regulation and flat-screen video panels above carriage doors, are there any plans for robot- or computer-driven trains?

“We have too much responsibility for human life to remove the driver,” said Sekiguchi.

Maybe when it comes to the Yamanote Line, then, it’s just hard to improve on a good thing.

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