As of this week, long-suffering passengers on Japan’s crowded local train lines are still awaiting a satisfactory explanation, rather than an excuse, for why they were overcharged if they followed the posted fare tables. In some cases, the overcharging has continued for more than three years. The reasons being offered by harried railway officials since the fare miscalculations were discovered early last month, while doubtless based on fact, offer small comfort to those beleaguered travelers who were regularly required to pay more than necessary for the dubious privilege of being packed into rush-hour trains crowded almost beyond endurance.

The lines operated by the formerly state-owned Japan Railways have been the worst offenders, with the wrong fares displayed at 747 stations managed by its five regional units. East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) was at the forefront, responsible for fully 46 percent of the stations posting erroneous fare tables. Even worse, at 95 of its stations in the Tokyo area alone, passengers transferring from subway lines were overcharged by as much as 50 yen by the machines intended to show what, if any, additional payment is required. Japan Central Railway Co. (JR Tokai) appears to have been close behind.

Questions are immediately raised by reports that the discovery of the fare miscalculations first arose from a single telephone call to the JR East customer-service center on Nov. 11 from a passenger asking about what he correctly believed to be an excessive fare posted on a display panel. Does that mean no other user of the JR system has ever questioned the cost of a trip since fares were last raised in 1997? The experience reported by many passengers, and the often brusque answers they received from station attendants, suggests otherwise.

Indeed, the confusion is only compounded upon learning that mistakes have also been found in Braille fare boards at JR stations, as well as in train schedules published by the companies. Not to be left out, such other train operators as Hokkaido Railway, Nagoya Railroad, Tokyo-based Tobu Railway Co. and Odakyu Electric Railway Co. and the Toei subway lines in Tokyo also have found errors in their posted fares. Although the JR companies are making refunds to customers who say they have paid too much, and vow to continue doing so, officials ruefully admit it would be impossible to calculate the total amount that passengers are due from being overcharged.

None of this is a good advertisement for the widely heralded efficiency of Japan’s railway system. Mr. Mutsutake Otsuka, the JR East president, called the matter a “professional embarrassment” in his official apology. The company’s vice president, Mr. Yoshio Ishida, said he never imagined there could be so many errors and blamed “deficiencies in the system” for checking the posted fares. He put his finger on the major flaw, however, when he had to note that JR East has continued to calculate fares and print fare tables manually, rather than with computers.

Unlike in the years when JR was state-owned and fares were raised frequently, they have only gone up twice since privatization: first when the consumption tax was introduced in 1989 and again when the tax was increased in 1997. Most of the mistakes so far detected resulted from fare calculations made after the tax rise by station attendants unfamiliar with the correct method of doing so. In some cases, this led to the anomaly of the fares posted at a station not being shown on its ticket-vending machines. Even so, most of the errors went undetected until just a few weeks ago.

This was not the case throughout the JR system, however. It has been learned that in 1998 JR West discovered that certain routes involving more than 90 stations had erroneous fares posted following the tax hike. After a customer noted one fare error, the company quietly corrected the mistakes without ever advising passengers who traveled those routes that they had been overcharged. Even so, a few of the errors were only detected in the latest check last month.

It is worth noting that a remarkably small number of the mistakes appear to have been in the customer’s favor. JR East claims that the most any one passenger was overcharged was 420 yen, but that is not an insignificant amount for repeated travel over more than three years. Demands for excessive reimbursement by supposedly irate commuters are not to be condoned, since most daily passengers could be expected to use a cheaper commutation pass. But the JR companies have only themselves to blame for not announcing until now the establishment, through an affiliate, of a centralized system for fare postings in all their stations.

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