Ask any group of children in Japan what they want to be when they grow up and one answer in particular is sure to feature.

“The first time I thought about becoming a train driver was when I was a fourth-grade elementary school student,” said 31-year-old Yuko Hatakeyama, who went on to make his dream a reality by becoming a driver on Tokyo’s busiest and most important train route, the Yamanote Line.

“It was my first time on a shinkansen that did it for me,” he said. “I liked fast things, and I had never been on anything as fast as a shinkansen before. I thought it was so cool.”

Hatakeyama is one of 6,320 train drivers currently employed by East Japan Railway Co., Japan’s biggest passenger railway and better known as JR East, which primarily serves the greater Tokyo area and its surrounding regions.

At the heart of the network is the Yamanote Line, the looping route with the light green livery that transports an estimated 1.12 million passengers around Tokyo every day. The line has 29 stations and takes an hour to complete the full 34.5-kilometer loop, visiting all the city’s main areas along the way.

The responsibility for making sure those trains arrive on time lies with drivers like Hatakeyama, who joined JR East straight after graduating from high school in his hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture.

New recruits must first spend two years working as general staff at one of JR East’s stations. They then move on to work as conductors for a further two years, making announcements on trains and helping passengers who need assistance.

Once that has been completed, aspiring drivers are eligible to begin training. The first three to four months are taken up by academic study, culminating in examinations. Trainees are then assigned to a particular line and given a minimum five months of practical instruction, including how to drive, how to make sure the train is in working order and what to do in various emergency situations.

Candidates can then apply for their train driver’s license, and those who pass the test begin driving under the supervision of an instructor. After around five months, they are ready to go solo.

The Yamanote Line is the busiest route in Tokyo.
The Yamanote Line is the busiest route in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

For those who have spent their whole lives dreaming of becoming train drivers, it can be an emotional moment.

“I thought, ‘So the day when I get to drive on my own has finally come,'” said Hatakeyama. “I felt quite uneasy, but you have to accept the responsibility of driving on your own and I was determined not to make any mistakes.”

Yamanote Line drivers work either day shifts where they return home afterward, or later shifts where they stay overnight at the depot dormitory. The Yamanote Line has two depots — one for inner circle drivers in Osaki and one for outer circle drivers in Ikebukuro. A driver would generally complete five circuits of the route during each shift, with breaks of various lengths in between each circuit.

Despite the unchanging nature of his journey, Hatakeyama insists he never gets bored.

“I love Tokyo,” he said. “It’s my favorite city in the world. When you’re driving on the Yamanote Line, you get to see Tokyo.

“You can see Takanawa Gateway Station being built, you can see everything being constructed at Shibuya Station, then when it’s cherry blossom season you can see the petals blowing through the air. You can see a different face of Tokyo on each of the 365 days of the year.”

The Yamanote Line uses 50 trains, with 48 of them usually in operation at any one time. Each train measures 220 meters in length and is made up of 11 carriages. Two types of train are currently in use — the E231 and the newer E235, which was brought into circulation in March 2016.

The driver sits alone in the cab and controls both the throttle and brake with a lever operated by the left hand. The right hand rests on a bar across the control panel, and a foot pedal sounds the horn.

The driver is expected to bring the train to a halt at a precise spot at each station, requiring skill, technical knowledge and a certain degree of intuition.

“The point where you apply the brakes is up to the individual driver,” explained Yamanote Line Osaki depot deputy chief Kenji Miyamoto as he watched Hatakeyama practice on a driving simulator. “They might use a particular pillar or building as a reference point. If it rains, the wheels and the tracks are both metal so the braking distance changes.

“Of course, you need to have the technical skill to be a train driver,” he said. “You also need to be able to react to situations. Even though you are driving on a track, you never know what is going to happen. You need to have foresight. You also need to have people skills, dealing with customers. It’s not just about driving.”

Yuko Hatakeyama, a train driver at East Japan Railway Co., trains on a Yamanote Line simulator in Tokyo
Yuko Hatakeyama, a train driver at East Japan Railway Co., trains on a Yamanote Line simulator in Tokyo’s Osaki district on March 14. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

With so many passengers relying on the Yamanote Line to get to work on time, drivers are under pressure to keep the trains on schedule.

In April 2005, a rush-hour train operated by West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) in Hyogo Prefecture derailed and crashed into a condominium complex, killing 106 passengers and the driver, and injuring a further 562. The disaster occurred when the driver took a curve at a speed far in excess of the limit, and it is widely believed he was trying to make up lost time to ensure he met JR West’s strict timetable and avoided punishment.

Hatakeyama said that the Yamanote Line’s high frequency of stops makes it harder to recover lost time than on other routes, but he insists safety is the driver’s priority.

“A lot of people use the Yamanote Line and I feel that responsibility as a driver,” he said. “There is always pressure, but especially in the morning and the evening when it’s busy. There’s no way to avoid running late if it’s really busy. The thing to do is make sure you drive safely above everything else and don’t worry about being late.”

From time to time, drivers also encounter other unforeseen disruptions as they go about their duties. Among these are fatal accidents and suicides.

In a bid to prevent passengers from falling from platforms onto tracks, JR East began installing safety doors on Yamanote Line platforms in 2010, starting with Ebisu Station. All but five stations are now equipped with safety doors, and although JR East does not disclose the number of annual fatalities on the line, the company says the doors have eliminated accidental deaths.

Suicides still occur, however, and the experience can be harrowing for drivers.

“It happened to me once, when I was still driving with my instructor,” said Hatakeyama. “It was evening, just as we were coming into the platform. He jumped right out. He didn’t fall — it was intentional. It was a suicide attempt.

“I was thinking about it all day,” he said. “I couldn’t get the scene out of my head. I kept getting flashbacks to the point of the collision until I went to sleep. But there was nothing I could have done about what happened. I just tried to put it behind me and get on with my work as normal.”

JR East offers counseling to drivers involved in suicides and fatal accidents, and supervisors ride with them in the cab afterward to see how they are coping. If a driver does not feel able to work on a particular stretch of track, they will be swapped out for a substitute.

But will such human consideration soon become a thing of the past? Starting from late December last year, JR East made a series of tests on a driverless Yamanote Line train, which senior officials described as “a first step toward high-level automation.”

JR East intends to put the technology into practical use by 2027 as one means of dealing with a shortage of drivers in an aging society. Nearly a quarter of the company’s workforce is currently nearing the company’s retirement age of 60.

As a driver, Hatakeyama has mixed feelings about an automated future.

“I think it will be interesting to see how developments in artificial intelligence and information and communications technology are used,” he said. “Maybe in about 50 years’ time it will all be automated. That makes me a little sad, but there are services that only humans can offer. We can work in synergy.”

Hatakeyama is now in his ninth year as a Yamanote Line driver, and he admits that certain aspects of the job do not quite fit the romantic image he had as a child. He has to watch what he eats and drinks, and the irregular working pattern can play havoc with his social life.

But he has never forgotten the excitement he felt when he first traveled on a shinkansen, and he hopes to offer similar inspiration to the next generation.

“Drivers are very popular with children,” he said. “Some kids stare at the drivers and give us words of encouragement. I like to give kids who do that a little wave.”

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