Rapid transit and commuter rail in Japan - statistics & facts
Rapid transit and commuter rail are significant infrastructural foundations of Japan. They support its urban world, where more than two in three of the population reside, densely permeating the metropolitan areas. These two kinds of railways are complemental, intra-regional networks designed to carry masses of people at a high frequency. Millions of suburban residents commute via rail to an urban center and transfer, if necessary, to rapid transit, such as a subway line, to reach their desks in an office building. This track has been Japan's railway-shaped urbanism – until the COVID-19 pandemic forced society to avoid crowds.
The line between rapid transit and commuter rail
Rapid transit and commuter rail are incoherently-used terms. In Japan, there is no clear cut between the two. It is reasonable to subsume subways, monorails, and specific metropolitan railway lines under (mass) rapid transit, and all other commuter-frequented passenger railways inside metropolitan areas, except for trams, as commuter rails. Many urban railways have underground sections, yet, the major subway operators are only ten; the two largest by operating length are Tokyo Metro and Osaka Metro. Both are exceptional as they are incorporated stock companies whose shares are owned by local and national governments. The others, in contrast, are subordinate to the respective municipal administration.
Railways as urban developers: the 16 majors
Ironically, Tokyo Metro is part of an association called “major private railway companies”. This association comprising 16 members is a fair proxy to evaluate the status of commuter rail in Japan because they have made commuter rail their business model: the combination of passenger rail with urban real estate and commerce. Moreover, they form a separate group from the Japan Railways (JR) Companies that operate supra-regionals networks. Nine majors operate in the Greater Tokyo Area, five in the Kinki Area around Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one in Fukuoka. After 2011, their railway business celebrated a renaissance, overcoming two decades of slacking passenger numbers. However, the pandemic turned positive into negative records.
The COVID-19 pandemic: a paradigm shift for commuters?
As in most places, the pandemic disrupted the lives of people in Japan. It caused a demand shock that unexpectedly de-clogged notoriously congested metropolitan railways, but operators had to handle a sudden loss of passenger revenue. It is not yet clear which effects will sustain as many have more or less reluctantly picked up their former habits. Still, remote work has a strong appeal for the metropolitan office worker, who can save up excessive commute time and other drawbacks of a commuter's routine, such as overcrowded railway cars during rush hours.
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