Friday, June 13, 2008

Private train networks in Tokyo

Generations of would-be town planner spent whole days on the American videogame "Simcity", in the shoes of the mayor. The aim is to tax city dwellers, and to develop the town by smartly spending public money. The equivalent game in Japan is called "A-Train", but players are in the role of the president of the local railway company. The goal is then to build train lines, and speculate on land close to the stations, by building office blocks, hotels, supermarkets and even theme parks. This is an excellent symbol of the major role of private railways in the development of Japanese cities. The result is certainly confusing, but those rail suburbs are very convenient and easy to live in. This story gets us to the south-west of Tokyo, at the heart of the “Tokyu” empire, for an impressive lesson of private urbanism.

Keita Kobayashi, a brilliant high school student from rural Japan was admitted in the prestigious Tokyo University where he met Takaaki Kato, a politician later to become prime minister, who took the young Keita under his protection. He spent fifteen years as a civil servant, and was then nominated as the president of the struggling Musashi railway company. He turned it around, and put in service between 1922 and 1938 the four minor lines of the Tokyu network in the close suburbs of Tokyo:
  • Oimachi line between Futago-tamagawa and Oimachi : 10.4 km
  • Ikegami line between Gotanda and Kamata : 10.1 km
  • Meguro line between Meguro and musashi-kosugi : 9.1 km
  • Tamagawa line between Tamagawa and Kamata : 5.6 km

Through an aggressive acquisition campaign, the company, renamed as “Tokyu”, bought the two major lines of the network:
  • Toyoko line between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1939 : 24.2 km
  • part of the Den-enToshi line between Shibuya and Futago-Tamagawa in 1942, extended after the war to Chuo Rinkan: 31.5 km
During the war, Keita Kobayashi bought the other networks of western Tokyo suburbs (Odakyu and Keio), and built part of the Tokyo subway, but the group was dismembered at the end of the war by the American Occupation Authority, and only kept control of the six lines mentioned above.
The company was a major driver of post war urbanism. It was directly involved in the development of the most important new Town in Japan, the “Tama Den-En-Toshi”. In 1953, only 20.000 People were living in the rural zone between Mizunokochi and Chuo Rinkan. Tokyu built the railway line, and recouped its costs by developing areas adjoining the railways. 550.000 people are now settled in the well-regarded area. This operation stayed unique in the history of Japan.
Works did not stop after the war. The network is regularly upgraded. Three lines are connected to the subway network, which allows very convenient through-services from suburban stations to almost everywhere in the city center. The company is current working on two new interconnections, and to increase capacity on a busy section. Upgrades are partially subsidised by public money since the 1970, especially the elevation of tracks, which contributes to road safety.
As early as 1937, the president of Tokyu had the briliant idea of building a department store in its terminal station in Shibuya. The store is still active, and includes the famous “Tokyu Food Show”, a well stocked food supermarket. The group has also created two very famous chain stores: “Tokyu Hands”, a unique do-it-yourself shop, and “book-off”, a second-hand book store.
The company also developed major real estate projects around its stations: the most spectacular is probably the Carrot Tower, a surprising office building in Sangenjaya. It also owns several hotel chains in Japan and overseas, and created a domestic airline, "Japan Air System", now merged into JAL. The company also built the « Izukyu » rail line that offers easy access to one of the most beautiful areas in Japan. Leveraging on its rail infrastructure, it developed a cable company serving around one million households. Diversification went as far as commercials, as Tokyu owns a famous communication agency. In addition to developing its piece of Tokyo suburbs, the company is an engine for the Japanese economy.
Life in Tokyo suburbs is centered on the rail network. Train is the easiest way to commute to work, which is made convenient by the interconnections with the Tokyo underground. Coaches are clean, safe and fully air-conditioned. As it is the company main cash cows, the network is managed very seriously. Overcrowding is less and less an issue, as the capacity is regularly expanded. Car is a marginal transportation mode: wide avenues are rare, there is no parking in the street, and there are tolls on urban motorways.
The first place to go out is the vicinity of the station (around 30 of them on the Toyoko line). Restaurants and shops cluster around, and very often, a supermarket owned by the train company is the best shopping option. Most places are open until 10 pm, so it is very convenient to buy food or essentials on the way back from work. All stations have their taxi stand, and a safe bicycle park, ensuring easy access to those that are living 10 to 20 minutes walk away from the station. Most roads in the vicinity are very narrow, and almost pedestrian. High-rise condos are usually located near the station, where the rents are slightly more expensive.
For a more elaborate shopping, destinations around the suburban rail network are the best option, as access is fast and the fare is cheap, especially as it is also sometimes possible to use the point-to-point rail pass paid by their corporation for office workers. Connection stations developed naturally into fashionable areas with the help from the train company: restaurants, fashionable boutiques and major stores cluster around the stations of Jiyugaoka, Futago-Tamagawa, Sangenjaya and Naka-Meguro. They can be reached from most places in the network in a few minutes.
Most suburban rail networks also serve recreational areas. The Tokyu network is less endowed than others, as the Tamagawa river banks, the exclusive suburb of Den-en-Chofu, and the port of Yokohama are almost the only options for a Sunday walk. However, the company also developed a small amusement park, “Kodomonokuni”, served by a special rail branch. Some private networks deserve major tourist areas like Hakone or Nikko. They often have special services on comfortable coaches bound for those destinations.
For very special shopping, or a night out, most inhabitants of the Tokyu Empire head for Shibuya, the terminal station of the two main lines in Tokyo. The station platforms directly lead to the Tokyu department store, the most simple place to go shopping. Shibuya is also a famous night spot with bars, night clubs, and its famous "love hotel hill". Modern Tokyo was developed around those suburban rail terminals. The likes of Ueno, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Shibuya are dynamic downtown areas, each of them comparing well with European or American cities.
Urbanism based on train has many advantages: a car is not necessary even in the suburbs. Station surroundings are lively commercial areas. Transport is safe, fast and air-conditioned on the whole network. This way of life seems perfectly suited for a 21st century that needs to limit its environmental impacts.
Fares and Travel times :
  • Shibuya – Yokohama : Y260 (1.65 Euro), 30 minutes, 24.2 km
  • Shibuya – Jiyugaoka : Y150 (0.93 Euro), 11 minutes, 7km
  • Shibuya – Chuo-Rinkan: Y320 (2 Euro), 38 minutes, 31.5 km
  • Kamata – Gotanda: Y190 (1.18 Euro), 23 minutes, 10.1 km
  • Kamata – Tamagawa: Y150 (0.93 Euro), 10 minutes, 5.6 km
  • Oimachi, Futago-tamagawa : Y190 (1.18 Euro), 22 minutes, 10.4 km
  • Meguro – Musashikosugi : Y190 (1.18Euro), 19 minutes, 9.1 km
  • Sangenjaya – Shimotakaido : Y140 (0.87 Euro), 17 minutes, 5 km

Interconnections between suburban trains and subway:
  • Hibiya subway line from Naka-Meguro on the Toyoko line
  • Nanboku subway line from Meguro station on the Meguro line
  • Mita subway line from Meguro station on the Meguro line
  • Hanzomon subway line from Shibuya on the Denentoshi line
  • Minatomirai subway line in Yokohama from Yokohama station

No comments: