Initiatives to Relieve Congestion in
Japan's Rail Industry
by Akito Okabe
While railroads play an important role as a mode of transportation in Japan, urban rail congestion has long been a serious social problem. It may be surprising to learn that the average congestion rate for major Tokyo-area railroad sections in FY 2019 was 163%, with the most congested section reaching 199%1). The congestion rate is an index of congestion calculated by dividing the number of people transported by the transportation capacity2).
As a guide of congestion rate
Although congestion rates have recently declined temporarily due to the pandemic, it continues to be an important issue against a backdrop of increased hygiene awareness and new ways of working through teleworking.
For a long time, Japan has been trying to relieve congestion rates by shortening operating intervals, adding more tracks, and other large-scale construction projects. In recent years, Japan has also been focusing on new initiatives such as a "Train crowd measurement system" that utilizes digital technology. This article introduces some of the advanced efforts in the Japanese railroad to relieve congestion.
Train Crowd Measurement System
In the Tokyo area, the provision of congestion information on official apps and websites of railroad operators has been in full swing since around 2015. This article introduces Tokyo Metro's real-time ‘train crowd measurement system’ for each train car.
Tokyo Metro has been distributing real-time congestion information for each train car on the 'Tokyo Metro my!' app since July 2021. According to Tokyo Metro, by distributing real-time congestion information for each train car, the system enables "safe and comfortable use" tailored to individual customers' needs, such as "which train car is relatively empty?" and "which station will be least crowded to board a train?"
In addition, this service has been used by many customers, reaching approximately 50,000 times in the month and a half since its distribution began in July. It is very difficult to calculate congestion in real time, but by utilizing the ‘train crowd measurement system’ that uses a 'depth camera' to acquire depth information on in-train congestion, it is now possible to distribute real-time congestion and congestion forecast information regardless of car type, according to the company.
Off-Peak Point Service
A service that rewards customers with points as an incentive for off-peak commuting is another initiative that Japanese railroad operators are focusing on to relieve congestion. JR East, Japan's largest railroad company, has launched a point service on weekday mornings as an initiative to support staggered commuting by SUICA3) commuter pass holders. If you enter a station in the target area during a time period eligible for point redemption and then exit at a station in the target area, points are redeemed.
An illustration of this is shown in the image above. For example, if the peak period is from 7:00 to 7:30 a.m., passengers can earn 15 reward points if they ride from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. during the "early bird period" before the peak period. If they ride between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. after the peak period, they will earn 20 reward points. The rewards can be recharged to IC cards and used as train tickets, or used for shopping at JR-operated commercial facilities. Currently, the program is being offered for a limited time from March 15, 2021 to March 31, 2022.
As in Japan, people in the U.S. are becoming more hygiene-conscious, and providing information on train congestion is a topic of great interest. In addition, since staggering morning and evening peak hours can also help railroad companies reduce the number of train cars and staffing required during peak hours, contributing to cost savings, we believe that efforts to promote off-peak use can be a useful reference for the U.S. railroad industry. Currently, the Japanese and U.S. railroad industries are facing a difficult situation due to the pandemic, but it is important to promote new approaches flexibly in accordance with changes in people's needs.
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism website
Japan Private Railway Association website
JR East's IC card can be used for trains, buses, shopping, etc.