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Thursday, 4 July, 2002, 07:38 GMT 08:38 UK
The cost of catching up
Train drivers next to a shinkansen at Tokyo station
The newest bullet trains travel at 285kph

One of the memories most British tourists returning from Japan cherish is their experience of riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train.

No doubt they will come back to the UK and wonder why our railways cannot be like the Japanese ones.

The Shinkansen have not had a single fatal accident in 38 years and carry millions of passengers every day.

Journey times
London-Inverness (914km): eight hours 30 mins
Tokyo-Hakata (1,174km): five hours
London-Manchester (313km): three hours
Tokyo-Niigata (333km): two hours

But it has not come cheap and Japan's ultra-modern railways have landed it with a historic debt of 28,000bn yen (153bn).

That is roughly equivalent to 200,000 yen (1,089) for every Japanese man, woman and child.

It is a sum which dwarfs the $4bn (2.6bn) which hangs around the neck of the beleaguered Amtrak, the giant US rail company which was set up as a non-profit corporation in 1971.

Most of the Shinkansen lines were built with the help of huge loans.

By the 1970s the government-owned Japanese National Railways (JNR) was crippled with debt.

In 1987 it had reached 25,000bn yen.

Enough was enough and the Japanese Government decided to privatise the railways.

Several different companies were formed and a special fund was set up through which the firms operating the most profitable routes (eg the Tokyo commuter lines and the Shinkansens) subsidised those operating the less profitable, but socially important routes.

Japanese railway history
Jun 1949: Japanese National Railways (JNR) formed. General MacArthur bans strikes.
1963: Automatic stoppers introduced after two accidents which killed 321 people
1964: First bullet train line opened, part financed by World Bank
1987: JNR privatised after losses reach 25,000bn yen
2002: Debt now 28,000bn yen (153bn)

Privatisation has been generally considered a success, unlike in the UK, where British Rail was replaced by Railtrack and numerous franchises in the mid-1990s.

Most of the privatised companies have made operating profits.

The big difference is the way Britain and Japan went about privatisation.

In the UK the infrastructure was split off under a company called Railtrack who maintained the stations, track and signals for a myriad of companies who ran the train franchises.

But in Japan they had a system of "vertical integration" which meant that the network was broken up geographically with train operators responsible for the trains, the tracks, the stations and the signals in their own areas.

Service comes first

Dr Ryo Takagi, a transport research fellow at Birmingham University, said: "That one decision is the reason for success in terms of providing good service to passengers."

He said the confusion over the points at Potters Bar would not have happened in Japan.

"They have subcontractors too but the final responsibility is kept within the operating companies," said Dr Takagi.

Mike Knutton, a senior editorial consultant with the International Railway Journal, said privatisation the British way was "a recipe for disaster".

Shinkansen arrives at Niigata station
A shinkansen train arrives in Niigata station
"Margaret Thatcher thought rail privatisation was too difficult but John Major thought he could do it.

"But he did it at a time when they probably knew they were going to lose the next election. It was rushed through and it was botched."

Mr Knutton said: "The Japanese kept the crucial link between the wheel and the track."

But despite the collapse of Railtrack and the succession of rail disasters in recent years, the new Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has insisted he will press on with the current system, all be it replacing Railtrack with a non-profit body called Network Rail.

At a meeting of the Railway Forum earlier this week he was asked by Brian Souter, chairman of the Stagecoach train and bus company, why he was persisting with it.

Mr Darling said switching to vertical integration would take too long and would not deliver the rapid improvements in safety and performance which were needed.

Kagoshima station
Clean and modern: Kagoshima station
Dr Takagi said Britain needs to adopt Japanese attitudes to safety.

"Japan's safety record is very high and that is partly because of the Japanese culture.

"Safety is the priority no matter what it costs, whereas in Britain we have decided not to go ahead with certain safety features because they will decrease capacity or cost too much."

Mr Knutton said the Japanese railway industry used to have a saying: "We will never be satisfied with 99.99% safety."

He said: "The trains are organised in such a way that the sort of conflicting movements that occurred in the Paddington crash could not happen there. They are prepared to pay for safety we are not."

In his speech to the Railway Forum Mr Darling said: "The railways have been through a difficult time. The legacy of years of under investment are very apparent."

We are providing the funding to put right decades of under-investment. But we will not write blank cheques.

Alistair Darling
Transport Secretary
But he said things were changing and he pointed to the fact that 4,000 new carriages were on order or had been delivered, freight and passenger numbers had risen in the last five years and the first new major railway for 100 years (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) was on time and on budget.

Mr Darling said the setting up of Network Rail - a non-profit corporation which will replace Railtrack - was a crucial step forward.

'No blank cheques'

He also referred to the Strategic Rail Authority's 10 Year Plan and said: "We are providing the funding to put right decades of under-investment.

A Connex slam door carriage
Light years behind...slam door carriages on the London to Brighton line
"But we will not write blank cheques."

Strategic Rail Authority spokesman Paul Latham told BBC News Online they had begun a feasibility study which was looking into the possibility of a Shinkansen-style high speed rail link between London and the North of England.

He said this could be a completely new line with trains running at more than 240kph but would not be operational until 2015 at the earliest.

Mike Knutton, of the International Railway Journal
"We can catch up with the Japanese but it will take a culture change from the drivers right up to the government."
BBC News Online's in-depth coverage on the state of the UK's railways

10 year rail plan

See also:

04 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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