Sunday, March 13, 2011

Long Train Runnin'

After Friday's catastrophic earthquake--the Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that it was Magnitude 9.0--and tsunami, rail transportation in the Tokyo area  completely shut down, stranding what was probably well over a million commuters. Many stayed in their offices, with friends,  or in ad hoc shelters set up in hotels or public halls. Hotels were quickly filled, and many people decided to give up on the long lines for taxis and buses, especially after hearing media reports of closed or gridlocked roads, electing to walk home even though it was a journey of tens of kilometers. Some of the more enterprising bought or rented bicycles. Most watched and listened eagerly for news of the resumption of train service, among them thousands waiting in and around stations.

Saturday morning's announcements of the piecemeal return of one line after another triggered a rush on the stations that opened, notably those on the circle-route Yamanote Line. I was about to embark on what promised to be an arduous journey by motorcycle to Kumagaya, 60 kilometers away on a map but 70-odd by road depending on the route. The combination of dismal news about closed expressways and somewhat more optimistic notices of returning train service changed my mind, so I took a cab to Shinagawa Station.

A horde of people, mostly tired-looking office workers  it seemed, stood or shuffled at ground level, hundreds queuing for buses or cabs intermingled with more hundreds edging slowly toward the stairs up to the concourse and wickets on the floor above. The escalators were turned off, probably wisely given the size of the crowd and the potential for a dangerous domino-like mass toppling. I was impressed by the stolid, steady, stoic behavior of nearly everyone, pressed together and moving at a glacial pace, considerate of their companions in adversity and obedient of the station employees' directions...I was to see much more of that for the next half day.

I remembered a little used and rather obscurely placed elevator  tucked behind a couple of shops in the station, and so managed to avoid the long wait to climb the stairs. The automatic wickets were disabled, left open presumably to facilitate entry and thus avoid bottlenecks and maybe injuries from the sheer press of people. I took a swipe at the sensor with my Suica card just in case, but it was indeed free to enter. The Shinagawa concourse, both inside and outside of the wickets, is spacious. Even with the steady stream of people entering, it seemed less crowded than during normal rush hours; the platform was a different story altogether.

There wasn't space for more people on the platform--indeed some people were waiting on the stairs leading down to it--but the crowd waiting patiently for the next train was arranged in neat rows and lines at the spots marked for the train doors. When I arrived, only the counter-clockwise route had been started, and that only just, but there was a train at the other side of the platform waiting for the start of service in that direction, and people waiting patiently inside those cars and in line for the next train, too. Most had expressions of relief at having made it this far, and there was an overall air of gaman.

The first train to arrive was probably among the first two or three of the day, with predictably few people getting off (I assume it had started from Ōsaki ). They had to thread their way through the ranks of the waiting crowd, but there was remarkably little pushing and shoving other than unavoidable jostling due to the sheer number of people. Although much more crowded than an ordinary rush hour, it was considerably less hectic and frenzied; I presume that everybody was just pleased to have a train to board, and nobody had any unrealistic expectations of a speedy journey.

That train was filled and pulled out, and I was now close enough to have a reasonable expectation of getting on the next one. During weekday rush hours, there's a Yamanote Line train every couple of minutes, barring unforeseen accidents, but it was closer to a half hour when the next arrived. In the meantime, periodic announcements were made explaining that the previous train was moving slowly, checking the condition of the tracks as it went, and the subsequent train would proceed accordingly. These announcements continued after I squeezed onto the next train, all the way to Ueno Station, a trip that took something like three times longer than usual due to the slow deliberate pace. The car I was in had one of the fancy LCDs mounted above the door, providing more-than-usually-important information about which lines or sections thereof were running, delayed, or still stopped. At least one of the announcements turned out to be false: it incorrectly indicated a shinkansen line had resumed, unless I was hallucinating--but I had decided to take the longer, slower Takasaki Line...if the train stopped along the way, I thought I had better options for walking to the next station on that.

When we finally reached Ueno Station, the electric signboards were of no help at all; evidently the schedules were so utterly fouled up that it was pointless to even attempt displays. I can see the point, but it would have been useful to know which lines were using which platforms, for the lines (like the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines, for example) that sometimes--but not always--share platforms. This bred confusion and the attendant anxiety about maybe standing for over an hour in a line for the wrong train. Further confusion was caused by some station employees' having incorrect (or at least obsolete) information, and by the continual cacophony of announcements--loud and often unclear--from multiple platforms competing for attention. It didn't help that trains all seemed to have "Ueno" as their destinations until moments before they pulled out of the station, so one couldn't judge merely by looking.

I could have...probably, barely...crammed myself into a Takasaki Line train  that left about noon. I decided to wait for the next train, on which I was able to get a seat. It left at 12:50, and finally arrived around 15:00, taking about twice the time it usually requires for the run. I had to wait in line for an additional 20 minutes or so to pay my fare, since the initial wicket in Shinagawa didn't record my entry. They took my word for where I'd entered, and I imagine they would have done so pretty much regardless of where I'd said, within reason.

It was a long, often uncomfortable, day. In retrospect, I think that I made the right decision in choosing the train system over the motorcycle, though. Having since heard of people taking 16 hours to drive 16 kilometers (I can stagger that fast), even though I'd expect somewhat better time on the bike it would probably have been a lot slower and probably even less comfortable.

And I might have had to title this post "Midnight Rider".


jhe-ian said...

i love the blog and the perfect presentation of things in it..

i want to visit japan but due to some reason i was not able too, hope with your blog i can travel japan as well even if its just with my imagination...

ps i would love to read more from you, hehe i just notice the last entry was one month from the entry next to it.

Balefire said...

Thank you for the kind words.

I've been rather lazy about posting recently, but I expect to be posting more frequently soon.

F. said...

that night, somewhat miraculously I managed to catch a shinkansen from Tokyo Central to Shin-Yokohama (one of the very few still running), from where I was getting ready for a six hour walk back home. But then a sweet Japanese granny picked me up and gave me a lift into the right direction, cutting my walk in half. I was so grateful for that.

Balefire said...

You were doubly fortunate then. It's nice to hear some good news, to balance out the relentless flow of bad news.

Thanks for the comment!