What Could Chicagoans Learn About Rail Transportation From a Trip to Japan?

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A Streetcar in Hiroshima. Photo: Rick Harnish

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is hosting a train-focused tour of Japan that should offer Chicago residents a fascinating window on what’s like to live with truly world-class transit and railroad service. The trip, which takes place between September 27 and October 9, is an opportunity to check out how fast, frequent, and dependable trains help create vibrant communities.

MHSRA president Rick Harnish has previously led rail-focused tours of Spain, France, Germany and China. Highlights of the Japan trip will include riding the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka – the world’s first and busiest high-speed line. Participants will tour a maintenance facility for JR Central, which runs the line.

The Nagoya Railway Museum. Photo: Rick Harnish

They’ll also check out a Nippon Sharyo railcar factory – In 2012 the company opened a branch in Roselle, Illinois, to fulfill a contract for 160 “Highliner” railcars for Metra Electric Line service, plus orders for other American rail lines. The group will travel to a number of other Japanese cities by rail, including Kyoto, Hakodate, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, visiting various rail museums and cultural attractions and, of course, riding the local Metro systems.

Through out the trip, there will be opportunities for rail experts and enthusiasts to discuss what they’re seeing and relate them to potential American high-speed rail systems, such as proposed lines from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. “Every time I have ridden high-speed trains in other cities, I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I get it,’” Harnish says. “So we’re trying to get more people to see these things up close and see how they can work.”

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A precision cleaning crew at the Tokyo station complex can turn a train around within seven minutes. Photo: Rick Harnish

Harnish says the most important takeaway from the trip for Chicagoans will be how well rail transportation can work when it’s properly funded. “They’re actually spending real money on trains,” he says. “Meanwhile here in Chicago the amount we spend on Metra is pitifully small and the amount we spend on Amtrak trains that connect us with the rest of the region is next to nothing.”

Harnish acknowledges that Japan’s rail extensive railway system, serving a densely populated nation, is very different from U.S. rail, so it’s hard to draw direct parallels. “But seeing how well things can works when you properly invest in transit is very inspiring to me,” he says.

More info about the tour here.

More photos of Harnish’s previous Japan trip here.

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  • al_langevin

    US high speed rail continues to be nothing but a massive boondoggle. There is no comparison between Japan and the US since they’re so different. Thanks to suburban sprawl and lack of planning, high speed rail is not convenient in the US.

    BTW – 71% of the revenue from passenger tickets at Japan’s largest high speed rail company comes from the conventional, slower railway.

    Please stop wasting Illinois tax dollars on this high speed fantasy and improve our commuter rail lines.

  • simple

    That’s a classic chicken-and-egg argument, my friend! What you call “waste” may also be characterized as planning for a future that is better and stronger than the present. Statistics on Japan are beside the point. HSR works with a wide variety of population densities around the world, and the US population density will only increase. We are one of the richest states in the richest country on earth. We can afford to plan and build for future growth and improve our transportation options — local, regional, and intercity. But only if we really want to.

  • It is my understanding that the HSR lines help support the other speed lines. That is why other country’s HSR operators want to run them in the U.S. Once the capital outlay is covered HSR actually makes more money than it costs to run.

    There is suburban sprawl around airports too. Suburban sprawl is not relevant to HSR either. You are thinking of regular transit.

    Your 71% number sounds authoritative but it is not. It just says that they sell way more regular tickets than HSR tickets. Again volume is not the same as profit.

    I’m not sure what your drug of choice is but I wouldn’t trust you with tax dollars.


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