OPINION: Japan trip shows Sydney’s trains are stuck in the dark ages

A packed Sydney train during peak hour. Picture: Supplied
A packed Sydney train during peak hour. Picture: Supplied

You might have recently seen a story doing the rounds about a Japanese train company apologising to customers for a service leaving 20 seconds early.

Those crazy Japanese people, right? I was holidaying in Japan when friends sent me links to the story, saying how funny they thought it was.

But I didn’t find it funny. Having experienced the amazingly efficient public transport that country has to offer, it made complete sense to me.

What was described as a “severe inconvenience” by the Japanese company would be heaven in comparison for those of us waiting at Sydney stations, where a train is “on time” if it leaves within five minutes after schedule. And don’t get me started on our “are they even coming?” buses.

It makes you wonder; how is it that a public transport network in a supposedly global city like Sydney can be so far behind the times?

It was near impossible to miss a train in Tokyo, day or night. Here at times it feels like you’re being dictated to by the timetable.

I’m not asking for bullet trains, I’d just be happy if I could get to an event of a Saturday without having to navigate the inevitable weekend trackwork. Some would be overjoyed at a lift at their local station.

Now of course planning and executing train services across a city as vast as Sydney is no walk in the park. The city’s network has been crippled by decades of inaction from a series of NSW governments, allowing ageing infrastructure to be outgrown by a bulging population.

The current state government must be commended for its enormous investment in future rail projects, and adding services to a busy schedule in recent months. Even then it’s copped criticism from commuters in the west for a controversial new timetable that means Blue Mountains services no longer stop at Redfern.

Heath Parkes-Hupton.

Heath Parkes-Hupton.

On Tokyo’s Yamanote line, which carries 34 million people each week with services every three minutes, technicians constantly predict issues and use technology that can fix 200 metres of track in 30 minutes. 

Earlier this year, a report found Sydney’s track inspection protocols showed “systemic” failures.

We don’t have Tokyo’s astonishing array of rail lines - crafted and perfected over many years. But there are things we can copy.

  • Heath Parkes-Hupton is a reporter with Fairfax Media in north-west Sydney.