Bringing Train Culture To Honolulu

Don Chapman
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April 20, 2011
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A map of Jr east’s 36 rail lines in tokyo

As mentioned in a recent column, one of the things that most impressed me during a visit to Japan that ended eight days before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami was the trains. As my friend Kamasami Kong said, they are so punctual “you can set your watch by the trains.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of getting around by train and subway - the JR East company alone has 36 different lines in Tokyo, with infinite connections - though I wouldn’t try it without a local guide. And I didn’t venture onto a train during peak rush hours, when cars are jammed so tight with commuters they make a sardine can seem elbow-roomy spacious, and train employees called “pushers” literally push and shove bodies into train cars to get maximum ridership - much like those competitions in the 1960s to see how many college kids could cram into a Volkswagen.

At morning and afternoon rush hours, by the way, certain cars are designated women-only, because so many ladies old and young have reported being groped on co-ed cars - though in the smashed-up conditions it’s hard to tell by whom.

Even the ladies’ cars are so jammed that reading a book, much less newspaper, is impossible. You’re lucky to have room to hold your cell phone inches from your face. (You’ll know the ladies-only cars by the pink line on the platform where they queue up.)

And it seems everyone, even the elderly, have their noses stuck in a cell phone on the train or on the platform waiting for a train, either texting, apping or playing games. I noted zero social interaction among strangers on trains.

Japan’s “train culture” got me thinking about trains in Honolulu, and how they’ll inevitably affect our social interactions and how we go about our daily lives - assuming solutions can be found for the many problems, both financial and ethical, the Star-Advertiser‘s Dave Shapiro pointed out in his April 6 column.

There are differences between Hawaii and Japan, of course, starting with this: Instead of multiple trains and tracks, initially we’ll have one train that will chug from the leeward side to town, then chug back out again. And commuter trains have been running in Tokyo for more than a hundred years - I visited a historic train car in bustling Shibuya plaza that serves as a mini-museum. And Japan’s people are famously polite. The jerk who cuts you off in H-1 traffic is the same jerk who will elbow past to get a seat. Talk about social interactions. Perhaps nothing speaks to the differences between Honolulu and Tokyo more than the amazing number of young schoolchildren traveling alone on trains, as young as 7 or 8, something I would never have considered for my kids.

Once we have that one train, of course, others will follow. Having invested the billions of dollars required for that one short line, trains to the Windward side, the North Shore and Hawaii Kai will have to be built. Like the financial institutions taxpayers had to bail out, the train’s initial cost will be “too big” not to link with new routes.

And make no mistake about this: Trains by their nature are l-o-u-d.

While getting to and from places via train and subway was convenient in Tokyo, taking along anything other than a purse, small backpack or computer bag was not.

And trains don’t take you right to your door, which means we’ll have an increase in park-and-ride parking lots. How much will it cost to park, and will the city provide security for the inevitable break-ins that characterize our most popular visitor areas?

If you’re not using a park-and-ride lot at or near a train station, you’ll likely be taking a bus in addition to the train, TheBus delivering you kind-of-close to work or home.

It’s worth noting that bicycle ridership is remarkably high in Tokyo, among old and young alike - not as exercise but as a basic mode of transportation. So extensive bike racks are provided at train stations. Will we be building more bike lanes that connect with train stations? Bike racks also present a security issue - not so much in Japan, where crime rates are low, but certainly it does here where petty criminals abound.

All of which raises another question for those of us who tend to stop by a grocery store on the way home to get something fresh for dinner. Do you want to schlep grocery bags on a train, bus or bike, or walking home after disembarking?

As for stations, some in Tokyo double as shopping complexes, such as Seijogakuenmae in Setagayu-ku, which includes a book store, clothing shop and the upscale grocery store Odakyo OX.

And while the aforementioned “pushers” may sound like a Japanese anomaly, rail proponents here note that each car will have seating for 72 people, and as many as 300 people can stand in a car at once. I can think of more relaxing ways to go home at the end of a long day. And while I found standing on trains fine for short hops - rides of 10-15 minutes - it didn’t take long for the arm that’s reaching up to hold a steadying grip dangling from the ceiling to “fall asleep.” And trains tend to lurch from side to side, so you’re always adjusting your balance. Again, OK for a short ride.

A final consideration: Honolulu’s proposed train, like those in Tokyo, will run on electricity. What happens when the power is out for hours (known to happen here from time to time)? As folks in Tokyo can tell you post-quake, trains don’t run, and workers spend the night in their offices or at stations waiting for a train.

These are all questions I’d never considered until visiting Japan and experiencing its high train culture. I raise them here now because, well, nobody else has, and it seems our train is coming.

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