Britain has much to learn from Japan’s railways

Torrin Wilkins

August 16, 2019

The United Kingdom’s rail system is a mess. It is beset with delays, low customer satisfaction levels, and generally poor services. The ownership of railways is a peculiar mix of government-owned tracks and privately-run trains.

With this system comes a lack of coordination between government and businesses, along with different goals for each. The botched process of rail privatisation in the 1990s has resulted in a state of affairs that restricts the efficiency of private companies, further held back by the failings of government-owned Network Rail.

It is abundantly clear that a new model is needed. Labour has proposed nationalising the railways, bringing the UK in line with countries including India, Russia, and Spain. However, it may be an idea, even for the Labour party, to look at one of the best railways in the world: Japan.

The railways in Japan are privately owned and controlled primarily by nine “Japanese Railways group” companies. These include six regional companies, the Japan Freight Railway Company, the Railway Technical Research Institute, and Railway Information Systems.

The railways in Japan are known for their safety, efficiency, speed, and capacity, making them renowned across the world.

It should not be a surprise that the Japanese railway system performs so well because it is driven by profit.

In order to maximise profits, Japanese rail companies prioritise faster trains with higher capacities and shorter delays, all of which increase the number of passengers travelling on the service. The government, meanwhile, uses taxpayer funds that would otherwise have gone towards the rail system to invest in roads and buses, both of which compete with travel by train.

The railways, therefore, need to keep up with the alternative options for consumers, which drives further private investment in rail technology and infrastructure.

This motivation has been stifled here in the UK. It’s not necessarily true that companies are unwilling to invest in the railways – it’s that they aren’t really able to.

With no ownership over the infrastructure around the lines, there is a large degree of uncertainty over who will own these lines in the future and whether certain operators will be able to bid for the contracts.

Japanese rail companies also benefit from greater freedom than their counterparts in the UK. Unlike railways here, Japan’s railways are given less financial support from the state, so land ownership actually provides a large source of income.

If they build a station they can also purchase the land around it, which can be rented out to generate further funds. For instance, JR East makes a third of its revenue from its land ownership.

A large feature of Japan’s railways is the high-speed Shinkansen system. While the UK is pressing ahead with HS2 and expanding current services in the north, Japan is changing the game completely.

Rather than relying on out of date technology, they are investing in the latest magnetic levitation railways. The new line they are building will be over 177 miles long and trains will travel at speeds of around 374mph.

This is just part of a long history of innovation that has been apparent since the first Shinkansen line was brought into operation in the 1960s. The willingness to utilise technologies is part of what makes Japan’s trains so fast. To put it lightly, the UK is well below the standard set by Japan.

The high-speed services also come at a high price which is unaffordable to some. The “Japan Rail Pass” does reduce the price of rail travel although it still costs 29,110 yen, which is roughly equivalent to £225 for a seven-day pass.

However, the high-speed lines are competing with planes as they usually have travel times that rival travelling by air. They also reduce the stress on other transport links which benefit the public more generally.

Overall, Japan’s railways contain some important lessons for the UK. They show that the UK needs to embrace new technology and that privatised railways can work far better than a state-run system ever could.

The government should seriously consider liberalising our botched rail system and must realise the benefits that this could bring in forging a truly modern economy for Britain.


Written by Torrin Wilkins

Torrin Wilkins is chair of Centre UK and Liberal Leave.


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