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Thursday, 4 July, 2002, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Travelling on a bullet
A Shinkansen train operated by JR West
A Shinkansen speeds through western Japan ©JNTO

Imagine landing at Heathrow on a Saturday morning and having a ticket for a football match at Old Trafford in the afternoon.

How confident would you be of getting there in time?

But then the Joetsu Shinkansen line is not Virgin Trains' West Coast Main Line and the Narita Express is not the Piccadilly Line.

UK rail incidents in June 2002
3 June: Fire on ScotRail train in Perthshire
4 June: Eight injured in derailment near Londonderry
11 June: Train carrying nuclear flask hits lorry at Dungeness, Kent
17 June: Timber train derailed in the Scottish Borders, causing delays on West Coast Main Line.
24 June: Trains from Birmingham to Bristol stopped after another freight train derailed.
24 June: Overhead power line failure causes huge delays between London and Glasgow
After passing through customs at Narita Airport and picking up my suitcase, I got on to a slow, stopping train at about 10.30am and arrived in Tokyo about 50 minutes later.

I walked through the concourse and straight on to a double-decker Shinkansen train. Two hours later I was getting off at Niigata. After dumping my suitcase at my hotel I caught a shuttle bus to the Big Swan Stadium in plenty of time for kick-off.

On my travels by train throughout Japan I soon realised that I could have complete faith in the timetable.

Japanese trains run to pinpoint timing.

During the two weeks I was there I never once saw a train leave late or be cancelled.

Japan rail incidents in June 2002
If the timetable said the train to Hiroshima was leaving at 10.14 then it left at exactly 10.14. If not, the PA would broadcast a profuse apology for the two-minute delay.

Although I would not have understood it, there was no need for the station announcers to mumble: "The 9.30 train from Kobe has been cancelled due to a shortage of drivers" or "The 3.45 train from Kagoshima is running 20 minutes late due to leaves on the line."

Passengers get on board train at Tokyo
Commuters board a Shinkansen at Tokyo station
Mike Knutton, a senior editorial consultant with the International Railway Journal, said: "Of course they are fortunate to have a very disciplined and compliant public.

"The Japanese do not spray graffiti on station walls or put their feet on the seats and they queue up where they are supposed to on the platforms."

There are other differences which the British traveller notices.

Many train carriages are double-deckers, which allows for twice as many passengers to travel in comfort.

Shinkansen drivers wear neat grey uniforms more redolent of airline pilots than the average scruffy British train driver.

Food on board Japanese trains is an absolute joy.

First class food

On most long-distance British trains the passenger has to stagger through several carriages before finding a long queue at the front of which they are offered a limited range of wilted, over-priced and barely edible fare.

In Japan you simply sit in your seat and wait for the neatly dressed, polite and friendly staff to pass through your carriage, which they do every 20 minutes or so.

On entering they bow and say: "Ohayo Gozai-mas! (good morning)" before pushing their trolley of goodies down the carriage.

Among the range of food on offer is the ekiben, a packed lunch with a difference.

A woman sells a packed lunch at Tokyo station
Ekibens (lunch boxes) are also on sale on platforms
Costing about £4 and packed in beautiful decorated box, mine was a delicious selection of riceballs, sushi, noodles, tofu snacks and other Japanese delicacies.

Japanese rail fares are similar to the price of a British train ticket.

But the difference, as Mr Knutton points out, is that the Japanese one is value for money.

"The Japanese do not mind paying high fares when they receive a service which is clean, efficient, punctual and above all safe."

See also:

04 Jul 02 | In Depth
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