As of January this year, the Shanghai subway system is 772 kilometres long, the longest in the world since 2010.
Actually, this refers to the generic “subway”, when the more precise term is rail transport, because only a few lines of Shanghai’s subway network are completely underground. Some are partially underground and partially overground, while others are completely overground, such as Line 3 and Line 16. Also, Shanghai’s rail transport includes the world’s only commercially operating high-speed Maglev line (advanced train system based on magnetic levitation).
Tokyo still has the advantage over Shanghai
But when it comes to rail transport, there is quite a gap between Shanghai and Tokyo. Tokyo only has 13 subway lines, just 305 kilometres long. But the subway is far from the main bulk of Tokyo’s public transport; the main method of public transport in Tokyo is the railway system, or what the Japanese call “densha”. With Tokyo Station at the centre, to a radius of 50 kilometres, there was 2,705 kilometres worth of rail as of 2015. While the subway system has yet to be fully built in Shanghai, it is estimated that there will be a significant slowdown once it reaches 1,200 kilometres. Thus, in the foreseeable future, the length of Shanghai’s rail transport is not expected to overtake that of Tokyo’s.
Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in Japan: in 2018, it saw a daily average of 3.53 million commuters, equivalent to the population of a large city. As for Shanghai, as of August 2019, its largest People’s Square Station saw a daily average of just 267,000 commuters. The gap is obvious.
The Ginza Line — Tokyo’s first subway line — was completed in 1927, and the newest Ōedo Line commenced operations in 2000. Tokyo has not planned for more subway lines since then, because its city area is limited and the existing subway lines already criss-cross in all directions. And subway lines cannot cross one another on the same level; they can only run on various levels underground. The platforms of some stations on the Ōedo Line are built more than 40 metres below ground, requiring several escalator transfers. Digging even deeper would clearly cost too much, and it would not be convenient for commuters. However, constructing rail tracks on the surface costs much less and would greatly lower the costs of demolition and relocation.
Tokyo is only one-third the size of Shanghai, with a population of 13.96 million as of 2020, or 58% the population of Shanghai. But based on 2017 figures, as many as 2.91 million office workers take the train from nearby prefectures into Tokyo each day. This would be unimaginable without a highly developed railway network. While Shanghai also sees office workers from nearby Suzhou and even Hangzhou, they come in much smaller numbers. Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in Japan: in 2018, it saw a daily average of 3.53 million commuters, equivalent to the population of a large city. As for Shanghai, as of August 2019, its largest People’s Square Station saw a daily average of just 267,000 commuters. The gap is obvious.
Shanghai can improve peak interval and operating times
Trains are the main mode of transport in Tokyo, and there are no space constraints on elevated rails unlike the subway. Most of Tokyo’s railway routes have four lines that provide for local trains that stop at every station, as well as rapid or express trains that only stop at major stations. This makes things very convenient for office workers and cuts down travel time. Shanghai’s Line 16 is completely overground; it also runs rapid trains stopping at major stations and even an express service going directly from one terminus to the other. However, other lines do not run rapid or express services, and those who are used to Tokyo would not be satisfied with the speed of Shanghai’s subway system.
The Chūō Main Line that runs through Tokyo has a peak hour interval of 110 seconds at its shortest. While Shanghai’s Line 9 does hit this interval at certain times, the Chūō Line sees as many as 30 trains per hour during peak hours — almost as soon as one train leaves, the next one arrives, bringing convenience to commuters by maximising capacity.
And because the train and subway system is fast and punctual, almost all office workers in Tokyo use rail transport; only senior officials and company heads go around with cars and drivers, and do not have to squeeze onto the packed train or subway.
While the train frequency on Shanghai’s subway is now comparable to Tokyo, there is still quite a gap in terms of operating times. Shanghai’s earliest trains begin at 5:30am, and the latest train is at 1am on Line 7, while most other lines stop running at about 10:30pm. The first train on Tokyo’s Keihin-Tōhoku Line is at 4:22am, and the last trains on various lines are after midnight, with the latest train being the 12:52am on the Odakyū Odawara Line. This means that rail services in Tokyo run an average of two to three hours more each day as compared to Shanghai, which is convenient for commuters who spend long hours outside of their home.
There is another small detail: there are metal luggage racks with netting in the cabins of Tokyo’s subway and rail services, so that commuters can put their luggage there without having to hold on to it. It is tiring to carry luggage in a crowded cabin, which can be a burden especially for tourists heading to the airport or other train stations. Such facilities are lacking on Shanghai’s subway, which is a slight flaw.
Better facilities and transfer options for Tokyo’s trains
Also, Tokyo’s rail services feature cushioned seats. While they are of limited thickness, they are still comparatively more comfortable for commuters. Shanghai’s subway seats are plastic; they are hard, and cold in the winter.
Transfers on Tokyo’s rail services are mostly very convenient. While there are a handful of stations where transfers can be some distance apart, mostly they are nearby, the most convenient being just having to cross the platform. For the Shanghai subway, while transfers at some stations are just a flight of stairs or an escalator ride away, transfers at most stations are hundreds of metres apart, which commuters are clearly not so happy about.
One can get monthly, quarterly, or six-monthly tickets for Tokyo’s subway and rail services, for regular commuters, students, or the disabled, with discounted rates for the latter two categories. These season tickets allow the holder unlimited rides during specified periods and on specified lines, which removes the hassle of buying daily tickets, and also any additional costs of riding the same lines on weekends or holidays. Furthermore, Japan’s subway and rail services also offer a type of ticket which gives you the 11th ride free on a specified line after ten rides. While the discount is limited, for salarymen, a penny saved is a penny earned.
Some lines in Tokyo provide tiered service. For example, between Narita Airport and Tokyo city centre, apart from regular trains, there is also the Skyliner, which features numbered cushioned seats with fewer stops, which makes it faster and more comfortable. Of course, it costs at least twice as much as a regular train.
The timings of every train on all workdays, weekdays, and holidays are displayed at all of Japan’s stations for the benefit of commuters, so that they can plan their travel and reduce waiting times.
The spirit of Shanghai is “inclusiveness, excellence, wisdom, and humility”. With this spirit, Shanghai should not get smug over its progress or even become stagnant. It should see that things can always be improved, and there is much to learn from many overseas cities.
Commuters more well-behaved in Tokyo
There is no busking, panhandling, or distribution of flyers on the Tokyo subway or trains in Japan. As for Shanghai, despite announcements on the subway that such activities are prohibited, at least the distribution of flyers continues. Commuters on the Tokyo subway and on all trains do not talk loudly, and few would answer phone calls. But on the Shanghai subway, it is common to see people answering the phone as if there is no one else around; even if nearby commuters are annoyed, there is nothing to be done. Recently, Shanghai made a rule disallowing the use of speakerphones on the subway; hopefully people will quickly become more conscious.
Besides, Tokyoites do not rush for seats on the subway or train. When a train arrives, there is an announcement for commuters to wait until the cabins clear before boarding, and so commuters do wait on the platform until there is another announcement inviting them to board, before they board in an orderly manner. But on the Shanghai subway, there are often scenes of people not waiting for others to alight before boarding, just so they can grab a seat. Shanghai’s subway commuters need to be more conscious of following the rules.
The spirit of Shanghai is “inclusiveness, excellence, wisdom, and humility”. With this spirit, Shanghai should not get smug over its progress or even become stagnant. It should see that things can always be improved, and there is much to learn from many overseas cities. Arrogance leads to criticism while humility leads to gain; that is an ancient Chinese saying that is tried and true. Shanghai would do well to remember it and be motivated to improve even more in future.