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Business trends

Tokyo kick-starts push to ease rush-hour hell

Over 250 companies on board to relieve infamous packed peak-hour trains

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Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike observes commuters at Shinjuku Nishiguchi Station on Tuesday morning.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- It is an all too familiar and painful scene during Tokyo's morning rush hour, when railway staff push commuters into already jam-packed trains. But the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Tuesday launched a new campaign with the aim of reducing the infamous crowded trains during peak hours.

As part of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's campaign promise to resolve the problem, the two-week effort called "Jisa (time difference) Biz" pushes off-time peak commuting by encouraging companies to adopt staggered working hours that allow employees to report for work before or after the peak time.

At around 7:50 on Tuesday morning, Koike visited Shinjuku Nishiguchi station in western Tokyo, where staff of Unilever Japan were handing out bottled drinks to early commuters. Unilever Japan is one of the more than 250 companies that have voiced support for the effort, along with All Nippon Airways, Panasonic and Suntory Holdings.

Unilever Japan adopted flexible work arrangements since last year, which is now used by the majority of its 500 or so employees, according to Takayuki Kitajima, the representative director. The company believes that a more comfortable commute will lead to higher productivity of its employees.

"Because of the packed trains, they were exhausted by the time they reached the office, then joined a long line waiting for the elevator at the ground floor. We thought this was simply unnecessary," said Kitajima.

According to a survey of 2,000 commuters in Tokyo and Osaka released last year by Macromill, an online market research company, more than half take over an hour to commute by train and 95% said they feel stressed, where the leading cause was crowding on trains, at 46%.

The main reason for the packed trains is the typical 9-to-5 working hours. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's transportation census in large cities for fiscal 2015, 44% of commuters within Tokyo's 23 wards were aboard trains at 8 am.

For commuters departing from neighboring prefectures Saitama and Chiba and headed for central Tokyo, the proportion who were on board at that time was higher at 60%.

Meanwhile, railway companies joined the effort with special trains during the period and other incentives. East Japan Railway rolled out services to inform commuters how crowded the trains are. The operator has set up displays at the gates of heavily crowded lines such as the Chuo and Sobu lines.

The average congestion rate of major train lines in the morning rush hour was 164% in fiscal 2015, down from 203% in fiscal 1990. The transport ministry says that 150% is the rate at which commuters' shoulders may touch each other but they have enough space to read a newspaper.

But the situation is much more severe on certain lines, such as Tokyo Metro's Tozai line which connects western Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture. Between Kiba and Monzennakacho stations, the eastern part of the line, the overcrowding rate was 199% in fiscal 2015, little changed from over a decade before.

At an overcrowding rate of 200%, commuters are squashed against each other.

Tokyo Metro added special trains called the Jisa Biz Trains on the Tozai and Hanzomon lines in both directions from 6-8 am for eight weekdays during the campaign.

"The two lines are particularly crowded among those we operate, leading to higher chances of delays. We hope commuters will utilize the trains during off-peak times," said a spokesman. Based on the outcome of the campaign, the operator may run them throughout the year.

For a start, the Jisa Biz campaign will be a short-term trial that runs for two weeks until July 25 with 10 working days. The metropolitan government said that if the campaign proves successful, it will make it a yearly event. 

"The aim of the effort is to show that packed trains will no longer be the norm," said Keigo Yasuda of the metropolitan government's Traffic Planning Division, which is heading the campaign.

Double-decker solution

Koike had previously proposed other ideas to ease the jam-packed trains by using double-decker trains with doors on both levels, and building two-story platforms to accommodate them.

Such efforts on the supply side -- with other options including building new lines and multiple tracks -- are considered the most effective to resolve the crowded train problem. But these entail high costs and strong commitment on the part of railway operators.

Seiji Iwakura, professor at the Transportation Science Lab of the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, said other possible measures include adjusting commuter demand by charging peak time fares during rush hour.

But citing a possible backlash from commuters and railway companies, he said shifting commuting times would be the most effective option, with lower hurdles. "If even one in five people avoided the peak hour, the packed train problem would be resolved and commuting would be less stressful," he said.

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