Clockwork precision on the Tokyo subway

Updated 22 September 2013
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Clockwork precision on the Tokyo subway

The vast train network that criss-crosses subterranean Tokyo can be a confusing and intimidating place for the uninitiated.
Dreary, utilitarian stations drone and chime with a stream of announcements, seemingly ignored by the mass of humanity that spills onto platforms or crams improbably into carriages.
It may not be pretty, but in a city where millions of commuters travel by train daily, it boasts the precision of a finely-crafted Swiss watch, keeping Tokyo moving — even if it means pushing hundreds of people into a single carriage at rush hour.
Huge banks of computing power link 13 lines and nearly 300 stations over 121 miles of track, putting one train on each line every two-to-three minutes at peak times.
Subway officials say that Tokyo’s business culture and the value its people place on punctuality pushes them to achieve the kind of precision that foreign underground railways cannot easily replicate.
“The subway is an integral part of everyday life in Tokyo. This level of safety and punctuality is expected by our passengers,” said Shogo Kuwamura, a spokesman for Tokyo Metro.
The city actually has two public subway operators: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Between them they carry nearly 10 million passengers daily.
Both systems operate in coordination with above-ground trains, which themselves link several hundred stations and ferry 26 million people around all corners of the sprawling megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, home to around 35 million people and the largest conurbation on Earth.
These layers of interconnecting rail systems make punctuality all the more important — a minor delay on one train can have a knock-on effect on another service, which in turn throws several more out of kilter, each one of them setting off its own ripple effect.
But when delays do occur — even as little as a minute — they are repeatedly announced to passengers along with humble apologies until normal service resumes.
Prolonged delays are fodder for local, if not national, news programs, and see the train companies handing out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses as a reason they were late for work.
“If there is a delay, you have to catch up,” said driver Shunsaku Hagita, 27. “You apply your skills so that you can recover from delays.”
Subway trains are increasingly operated by computers and monitored by the central command center to minimise the risk of human error, Hagita said.
Drivers sit in the cockpit essentially to provide human eyes to monitor the on-deck computers and to take action in emergency situations, he said. In the event of an earthquake warning, all trains automatically stop.
If a subway line is delayed, other trains in the affected area drop their speed slightly, to keep them in line and maintain the flow of passengers from station to station.
The method prevents waiting passengers overcrowding platforms and jamming into delayed trains when they arrive.
Drivers and platform attendants perform elaborate rituals at each station to demonstrate they are paying attention to subway safety.
In their cockpit, white-gloved drivers chant to themselves as they acknowledge and drive by safety signs in tunnels and to confirm readings on various onboard gauges.
Before signalling “safe to start” to drivers, conductors must raise their arms and point a finger to the closed doors, loudly demonstrating to onlookers they have checked the doors are safely shut.
For Japanese boys, the train driver sits alongside footballer, doctor and policeman as a dream job.
“I grew up watching train drivers do all that,” said Hagita. “There was nothing unnatural about this when I began working as a driver.
“When I get married and start a family, I want them to ride on my train,” he said.
The system played a proud part in Tokyo’s successful tilt at hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, with bid chiefs pointing out that the city’s “rail structure is one of the best in the world and continues to expand and develop.”
The culture of extreme punctuality might be difficult to export, but Tokyo Metro has shared its know-how with foreign counterparts who are trying to improve their systems at home.
A Chinese delegation came recently to learn how to minimise train noise through better maintenance work. An Egyptian firm asked about efficient methods to stock repair parts.
Tokyo Metro, which uses one of most energy-efficient subway trains in the world, is also helping Vietnam to launch a new subway system in Hanoi.
But for all their efficiency and punctuality, there is no getting away from the fact that Tokyo’s subways are a bit of a squeeze.
For Tokyo Metro, trains typically consist of up to 10 carriages that are designed to carry about 150 passengers each. During rush hour, train operators literally push nearly 300 people into a single carriage, with briefcases and handbags squeezed in as doors slide shut.
While violent crimes are extremely rare — most drunkards are asleep — young women on packed trains complain about being groped.
Subways and many other commuter trains have designated women-only carriages during the busiest hours in the morning to give them an environment free of potential perverts.
Signs requesting mobile phones be silenced are adhered to, and train rides can be tranquil experiences in Tokyo — if you can find a seat.
“We are always considering ways to improve our system,” said Kuwamura.


The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.