Thoughts on economics and liberty

How Japanese trains went from dirty toilets and massive losses to the world’s best


How do you privatise trains? That sounds implausible. Well, Japan did it in 1987.

in 1987, the government privatized the Japanese National Railways (JNR), which operated every type of transit except trams and inner-city metros. JR East, JR Central, and JR West, the three spin-offs operating around Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, respectively, emerged healthy and profitable. They were able to pay back their construction debt and make capital improvements to their networks, reversing the stagnation and decline that JNR had seen over the previous decade. [Source]

While this experiment has been a resounding success in dense areas of Japan, it is floundering in remote regions:

The turnaround of Japan Railways group firms servicing Honshu and Kyushu over the past 30 years paints the 1987 privatization and breakup of the Japanese National Railways as a successful reform of the state-run train operator that was incurring more than ¥1 trillion in losses each year and piling up mountains of debt. However, the success of JR companies that benefit from the popular shinkansen superexpress services, profitable local train operations for urban commuters as well as diversification of their business comes in sharp contrast to the problems confronting group firms in rural regions where many train services remain in the red — a problem that threatens to get worse across the country as Japan’s population continues to shrink. [Source]

This article is a pretty good summary of the situation.


The paper – below – explains some more details (MIZUTANI, F., & NAKAMURA, K. (1997). PRIVATIZATION OF THE JAPAN NATIONAL RAILWAY: OVERVIEW OF PERFORMANCE CHANGES. International Journal of Transport Economics / Rivista Internazionale Di Economia Dei Trasporti,24(1), 75-99)

JUST LIKE INDIA: Skewed incentives and dirty toilets

The public corporation system, too, led to the untenable financial posi­tion JNR found itself in by the 1980s. This system ensures that the govern­ment completely backs the corporation, no matter how inefficiently it is run. At JNR, there was almost no concern with the possibility of bank­ruptcy. Public ownership hindered structural adjustment, damaged work incentives, and invited political involvement. The sharp decline in efficiency over the years can be attributed mainly to the inherent characteristics of a public corporation: lack of a reward system, limited interest in restructur­ing, and conflict between economic and social objectives. JNR tended to be slow to innovate and to respond to changes in customer preferences, thus rapidly losing its competitive edge.

The predominant thought at JNR was that the government would make up the deficits even if JNR were not profitable. Lack of cost consciousness was evident in, for example, the number of JNR employees. The total number of employees peaked at a staggering 400,000, clearly excessive. JNR was almost powerless to reduce the number, however, due to the strained relations between management and the labor unions. Productivity problems were a constant source of conflict, with workers balking at the periodic large-scale productivity improvement drives imposed by their managers. Embittered relations hampered any efforts at reform.

Government interference also contributed to the inefficiency that wors­ened JNR’s financial situation. Details of fares, investment plans, employee wages, and personnel matters were highly controlled by both the govern­ment and the Diet. Price adjustment, in particular, which was subject to gov­ernment approval, incited fierce controversy. The nationwide uniform fare system for universal service was also responsible for widening unequal cost burdens, as it did not take into account differences in costs according to region. Furthermore, even though some unprofitable rail lines were con­verted to bus routes based upon reconstruction plans, this restructuring proc­ess was often interrupted by conflicts among vested interests.

Rail users themselves were too demanding. Because JNR was a govern­ment-owned entity, citizens took it for granted that the company was there to serve their every need. They pressured Diet members to provide rail services where there was clearly insufficient need, without consideration of the poor financial state of JNR. Rails were constructed in rural areas where there was no possible justification in economic terms for such an undertak­ing.

After privatisation, dirty toilets were cleaned up

A typical case was the campaign to clean up dirty, malodorous station toilets which had typified JNR’s lax attitude toward satisfying rail users. What might seem a minor detail — clean toilets — clearly left users with a more positive image of the privatized JRs.


The productivity level in the before-privatization was 510 thousands passenger kilometres per em­ployee and 1,114 thousands ton kilometres per employee, but these in­creased to 1,443 thousands passenger kilometres per employee and 2,385 thousands ton kilometres per employee. Although the annual growth rate of labor productivity was highest in the during-privatization at about 21 per cent for passenger and 15 per cent for freight transportation, it continued to increase, though less dramatically, in the after-privatiza­tion period.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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