The Mast-Head: Wishing for Speed

Japan, where the trains, as they say, run on time

It is a cliché for travelers to return from abroad marveling about rail transportation in another country. But, having just gotten back from Japan, where the trains, as they say, run on time, I must indulge. 

Adelia, my 15-year-old, and I, just the two of us, took a trip with an itinerary that included Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I had known before we left about the Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed trains linking the major cities. What I did not get was how good every aspect of rail travel there was, from subways in the capital city to an impeccably clean cable car in a mountain resort town.

We scarcely needed to consult timetables; there were departures to wherever we wanted to go almost anytime we showed up at a station. Watching the time was not necessary; the trains left their stops and arrived at their destinations exactly when they were supposed to. The service was fast, the seats plush and comfortable. 

It was one thing for the celebrated Shinkansen Nozomi to Kyoto to cruise at 170 miles per hour, almost expected. But it was a surprise that routine commuter trains we were on hit 100 miles per hour, according to an app on Adelia’s iPhone. 

Back home, there is a slight degree of justification for talking about trains. Various local politicians have resurrected an idea for more rail service on eastern Long Island, envisioning enough service that moving among the villages and hamlets by train might someday soon be a realistic option.

I don’t know why passenger trains in the United States pale in comparison to those in Japan. The Long Island Rail Road gets you there, but on an infrequent schedule and in remarkably ugly and often odiferous conditions. Amtrak stations are smelly and rusting and have peeling paint. Maps and notifications to passengers are nearly impossible for visitors to decipher, unlike in Japan, where helpful, clear announcements are made in both Japanese and English.

This was made all the more obvious on Sunday as Adelia and I were on our way home. Kennedy Airport has an elevated electric train that connects the terminals, long-term parking, and the city subway system. But even for native English speakers, the posted information is difficult to understand. Looking at the signs, you had to know that Lefferts Boulevard was where you left your car, that Howard Beach was where you got the subway, and that Jamaica Station was the right place for the Long Island Rail Road. Why they make it a guessing game I don’t know. And why we can’t have trains like they do in Japan I don’t know either.