Before going to Japan, people will tell you about the trains. “They’re almost always on time,” they’ll say. “If they’re thirty seconds late, people will start checking their watches and getting impatient,” they’ll say.
This is not true. The truth is that Japanese trains are usually on time. They are also, however, frequently late.
Reasons for delays vary. The most common seem to be due to mechanical error, inclement weather, or just people not willing to wait for the next train and trying to wedge themselves in the closing doors. On the train info screens, I’ve seen reasons such as Signal Trouble, Car Inspection, Passenger Injury, Smoking on Tracks, and my personal favorite, Antelope Collision. Earthquakes over a certain magnitude will also stop trains running, and for obvious reasons.
Most delays are only a minute or two, but I’ve experienced delays of an hour or more. In those cases, your options depend on where you are. If you’re at the station, you can try to find a workaround — taking different lines to get to the same place, for example. In cases where that’s not possible, you can still look for a taxi. If you’re on the train, though, you’re stuck.
There is good news for people screwed over by late trains. If your train is late, the line will give out what they call a 電車遅延証明書 — a train-delay certificate — which works anywhere to get you out of trouble for being late. While it may not help with a movie or meeting that already started, it will prove to your friend or boss that you weren’t at fault. There’s no one in Japan who hasn’t been inconvenienced by a late train, so everyone can relate.
The last major drawback to late trains is that when they do finally arrive, the number of waiting passengers will have increased significantly, and subsequent trains will be absolutely packed for a while. If you’re too far back in line, you may have to wait for the next train. If you make it onto the train, prepare to be crushed as people force themselves onto already-crowded cars. (Sadly, there’s no certificate for that.)
In the end, Japanese trains aren’t perfect. They are, however, far more reliable than trains anywhere else in the world, even with a few delays here and there.