Comparing trains in Germany and Japan
I recently described a bicycle tour we undertook, around Lake Constance, the southernmost part of Germany. It started with a train journey from Hamburg to Friedrichshafen. This normally takes just under nine hours, with three to four train changes. Our trip was pre-booked, with reservations for each leg — except we missed every connection, because on each segment of the trip the train arrived late. Usually half an hour. Which meant we had to continue without reservation, in overcrowded carriages that looked like this.
On the bicycle tour I crashed and broke four ribs (and told the story here). The trip back home was even more nerve-wracking: it was continuously interrupted, once for two hours due to a “field fire” across the tracks up ahead (we saw no evidence of this when the journey finally continued). Then, due to a hurricane, all train services were suspended and we were left stranded in Hanover, 160 km from home. Fortunately our son Tommy was able to pick us up, and after fourteen hours we were at last back home.
All this reminded me of a lifelong dissatisfaction I have had, generally, with the German rail service. In the olden days it was mainly the construction of the carriages. They had a row of six-seat compartments which you could reach by navigating a corridor too narrow to carry a suitcase. The services during the ride were quite unsatisfactory: the dining car was cramped and uninviting — and hideously expensive. There were many other complaints that left me quite frustrated. A train trip was never a pleasure. that is why I usually flew or travelled by car.
Another reason for my dissatisfaction was that I had seen, very early on, how much better rail travel could be handled. In 1979, as a young journalist, I was commissioned to take a trip around the world, visiting all the important Artificial Intelligence labs. Included was a week in Japan, where I had to take a train from Tokyo to Osaka. That was a fundamentally different experience.
At the time the Japanese “bullet train” Shinkansen was already in service, and this is what riding it looked like: First you arrived at the station. In the giant hall there was a row of ticket windows, and you walked towards the one with the least number of people in front of it. When you arrived it was free, and you spoke to a man behind the glass pane. “One ticket to Osaka, please,” and put some Yen banknotes into the drawer. The man did not move a muscle, the drawer retracted and opened again, and there was your ticket, the change and a schedule for the next train to Osaka, with a number for your seat. All this took sixty seconds, max.
From the counter I proceeded to the platform. There I saw clear signs indicating where each car would be. The cars were numbered 1-n, unlike German carriages, which were 7431, 3572, 3573, 8845, etc. When my Shinkansen arrived the arrow on the sign on the floor pointed precisely to the slit in the door, which automatically opened.
Entry on the Shinkansen was on a perfectly level transition from platform to train, with no visible gap. You could ride in on a wheelchair or push in a bicycle, without any problem. I mention this because I was used to German trains that had a more challenging way to embark. The picture on the left is typical for travel at the time.
Inside the Japanese Shinkansen the passages were wide, with many rows of comfortable seats on either side. Some had two rows facing each other, and a nice table in between. I must mention that today, forty years later, German long distance trains have thankfully copied the system.
Our train in Japan left on time. I checked my watch and it started to move when my second hand hit twelve. Recently I read reports on what happens when they do not succeed in keeping the timetable: “A Japanese rail company has apologised after a train left a station 25 seconds early, the second such case in months. The operator said the ‘great inconvenience we placed upon our customers was truly inexcusable’.” I kid you not, you will find it in a BBC story. Contrast that with our recent trip to south Germany … but I believe I have told you about it at the beginning of this article. I should add that the German rail service has recently installed a policy: if you arrive at your destination half an hour late you get half your ticket refunded; if it is an hour or more it is the full price. A good start.
On the trip to Osaka I was accompanied by a photographer, Georg. The first leg of our journey took us through urban and then suburban Tokyo. That goes on for a long time — how big is this city, for heaven’s sake? Then it transits to the countryside, and, to provide a stark contrast, passes close to Mount Fuji. That is absolutely breath-taking.
In excellent spirits after gawking at Mount Fuji, Georg and I proceeded to the restaurant car, which was spacious and elegant. The menu was many pages long, and the prices were very reasonable — certainly less than in the Tokyo high street. We ordered a sumptuous meal with a good wine, but halfway through, engaged in exuberant discourse, I tipped over a glass. This is what transpired (I swear): our two charming waitresses rushed to the table and — apologised profusely for the accident. They cleared the glass, the bottle, all the plates and the table-cloth. One of them brought tissues and started to clean me up from any traces of wine that might have spilled on my clothes. And then they re-laid the table and re-served the whole menu, including a fresh bottle of wine —while still apologising for the disaster. I had to assure them that it was not their fault. Need I mention that there was no additional charge?
In this connection I must add one more story about my trip. In Japan there is (or certainly was at the time) a deep and spontaneous need to help people in need. When I arrived in Osaka I took public transport to our hotel, but could not find it. So I went into a small grocery store and asked for directions to the “Holiday Inn”. The proprietor looked shocked, came out on the street and started instructing me. Fearful that I might not understand his Japanese he suddenly locked up his shop and started to wrestle me for my suitcase. In spite of serious resistance he won, and carried it all the way to the lobby of the hotel. Later I asked a Japanese friend why this had happened, and he told me: a grown man entering a shop asking for this kind of help is clearly in the greatest depths of distress. It was the duty of the shop owner to stop everything to alleviate my situation. Same for the waitresses in the Shinkansen. What a difference in culture, what a different railway system.