With nearly 300 stations, Tokyo has one of the world’s busiest and most sprawling subway networks at work today — not to mention globally notorious rush hours.

A quick glance at a transit map shows a spider web of colorful lines representing each route — the product of more than 80 years of digging and constructing to provide an efficient system reaching virtually every part of the metropolis.

Tokyo’s environmentally friendly rapid transit system has been copied to a lesser extent by most cities of significant size nationwide, from Sapporo to Fukuoka.

Following are few questions and answers about the nation’s subway systems:

What defines a subway?

A simple definition would be a railway that runs underground or the tunnel it runs through.

Travel expert Hitomi Tanigawa, who wrote the book “Mystery and Wonders of Subways,” feels there is no clear-cut definition for the “chikatetsu” system, as subways are called, other than they generally operate underground.

Many cities around the world simply refer to their inner-city rail systems as “the metro.”

The boundary between subways and surface trains is a bit blurry, as some underground lines also run above ground in some sections.

Nearly half of the 30.8-km Tokyo Metro Tozai Line, which extends out to Chiba Prefecture, is above ground.

The line, operated by Tokyo Metro Co., a private firm jointly owned by the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, is nonetheless considered a subway.

The subway lines mentioned further in this article will be ones that receive special “subway subsidies” from the transport ministry in return for complying with its regulations.

Who was responsible for introducing the subway system to Japan?

Noritsugu Hayakawa, builder of Asia’s first underground railway, is considered the father of subways in Japan.

Hayakawa was an apprentice of “railway king” Kaichiro Nezu, the founder of Tobu Railways.

Impressed by the subways he saw while touring Europe in the 1910s, upon his return to Japan Hayakawa began fiercely lobbying for Tokyo to build its own system.

After obtaining a license, he established the Tokyo Underground Railway Co. in 1920. The first underground rail link connected Asakusa and Ueno in 1927. This is now known as the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line.

How did subway systems evolve over the years?

After the Ginza Line came Osaka’s Midosuji Line, operated by the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau. It opened in 1933, becoming the first government-run subway line. This was followed by the Yotsubashi Line, which began operations in Osaka in 1942.

It would not be until 1954 that the fourth line opened — Tokyo’s Marunouchi Line.

Like other lines, it was long in the planning but was delayed by the war.

In subsequent decades, new subway lines opened at a steady pace across the nation, while technological improvements gradually enhanced the performance and space restrictions, and led to the construction of lines deeper underground, especially in Tokyo.

According to Tanigawa’s book, the platform for the Toei Chikatetsu’s Oedo Line’s Roppongi Station is located 42 meters underground, equivalent to 14 floors.

How many people use the subway system, and how much money do the carriers make?

According to a Tokyo Metro public relations representative, 6.33 million people on average used Tokyo Metro’s nine subway routes, which together have 179 stations, on a daily basis in fiscal 2009, when it logged a profit of ¥63.5 billion.

Tokyo’s other major subway company, Toei Chikatetsu, which hosts four lines and is operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation, averaged 2.34 million passengers per day in 2008, and made a profit of ¥12.2 billion in 2009.

Toei Chikatetsu has 106 stations.

But despite the figures, both companies had long-term debts, ¥735 billion for Tokyo Metro and more than ¥1.1 trillion for Toei Chikatetsu, in fiscal 2009 — a result of the enormous sum necessary to construct and maintain their lines.

What new developments are in the works?

To improve passenger convenience, there has been talk of unifying Tokyo Metro and Toei Chikatetsu, although this has yet to happen.

Toei Chikatetsu was founded in the late 1950s by the metropolitan government as a means to accommodate the rapidly increasing population and provide further underground transportation in addition to the already existing Teito Rapid Transit Authority (Eidan), the predecessor of Tokyo Metro.

Currently, the central government owns 53 percent of Tokyo Metro stock and the metropolitan government the remaining 47 percent. Toei Chikatetsu is 100 percent owned by the metropolitan government.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Deputy Gov. Naoki Inose have been calling for the consolidation because under the current system, passengers find it confusing when transferring between Tokyo Metro and Toei Chikatetsu lines.

Tokyo Metro’s minimum fare is ¥160, whereas it is ¥170 on Toei Chikatetsu.

Although there are no transfer fees when changing lines operated by the same carrier, and fees are based on distance, if both Tokyo Metro and Toei Chikatetsu trains are used to reach a destination, the minimum fare would be ¥330.

But blunting the talk of consolidation is Toei Chikatetsu’s ¥1.1 trillion long-term debt.

During a news conference in early July, transport minister Seiji Maehara revealed that Tokyo asked the central government to set up a consultative panel for talks on merging the two carriers.

But while agreeing to discuss the issue, Maehara pointed to Toei Chikatetsu’s enormous debt as a reason to tread cautiously.

Ishihara was quick to defend Toei Chikatetsu. During a July 23 news conference, he said that while Toei does have debts, it is in good shape.

“It would be disrespectful to (subway) users if we didn’t consolidate them,” he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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