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Clockwork precision on the Tokyo subway

[20th Sep, 2013]
The vast train network that criss-crosses subterranean Tokyo can be a confusing and intimidating place for the uninitiated.

Dreary, utilitarian stations drone and chime with a stream of announcements, seemingly ignored by the mass of humanity that spills onto platforms or crams improbably into carriages.

It may not be pretty, but in a city where millions of commuters travel by train daily, it boasts the precision of a finely-crafted Swiss watch, keeping Tokyo moving -- even if it means pushing hundreds of people into a single carriage at rush hour.

Huge banks of computing power link 13 lines and nearly 300 stations over 121 miles (195 kilometres) of track, putting one train on each line every two-to-three minutes at peak times.

Subway officials say that Tokyo\'s business culture and the value its people place on punctuality pushes them to achieve the kind of precision that foreign underground railways cannot easily replicate.

\"The subway is an integral part of everyday life in Tokyo. This level of safety and punctuality is expected by our passengers,\" said Shogo Kuwamura, a spokesman for Tokyo Metro.

The city actually has two public subway operators: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Between them they carry nearly 10 million passengers daily.

Both systems operate in coordination with above-ground trains, which themselves link several hundred stations and ferry 26 million people around all corners of the sprawling megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, home to around 35 million people and the largest conurbation on Earth.

These layers of interconnecting rail systems make punctuality all the more important -- a minor delay on one train can have a knock-on effect on another service, which in turn throws several more out of kilter, each one of them setting off its own ripple effect.

But when delays do occur -- even as little as a minute -- they are repeatedly announced to passengers along with humble apologies until normal service resumes.

Prolonged delays are fodder for local, if not national, news programmes, and see the train companies handing out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses as a reason they were late for work.