A view from Dave Trott: Belt and braces
A view from Dave Trott

Belt and braces

There’s something strange about Japan’s Shinkansen trains.

Not just that they’re the fastest trains in the world. 

Up to 300kph: the quietest, smoothest, most punctual there are.

No, the strange thing is the staff keep pointing and repeating instructions.

Even when no-one else is present.

All the staff, from the drivers to the conductors and porters.

They point and then they loudly repeat commands.

Who are they talking to, what are they pointing at?

To us it makes no sense.

Especially when it turns out they are talking to themselves and pointing for no-one but themselves. 

But this is the Japanese practice of Shisa Kanko.

Shisa Kanko means pointing and calling.

You point at the object and call out your action.

So the driver points to the speed indicator and calls out the speed.

The conductor points to the CCTV screen and calls out the doors’ position. 

The strange thing is, this isn’t for anyone else’s benefit.

They do it whether anyone else is present or not.

Shisa Kanko is over 100 years old on Japanese railways.

In 1996, a study was commissioned to see why it worked.

It was found the system involved the brain, the eye, the hand, the mouth and the ears.

Therefore, every action was reinforced in the person doing it.

No action could be accidentally missed or misinterpreted.

In our language, it was belt and braces.

And the benefit of the system was that errors were down by 85% where it was used. 

Japanese railways carry 12 billion passengers per year.

Since its introduction in 1964, the Shinkansen has had zero fatalities due to derailments or collisions (even including earthquakes and floods).

Plus the trains have a lateness average of just 54 seconds.

New York’s chief transportation officer was so impressed that, in 1996, he introduced Shisa Kanko to the New York subway system.

Not the entire procedure: non-Japanese can’t be persuaded to shout and point every command.

So he just introduced the most crucial part.

On every single subway platform in New York, there is now a zebra-striped board.

The train conductor must point to this board at every single stop.

Why is that?

Even most New Yorkers don’t know.

Well, the length of trains varies from eight to ten carriages.

If they don’t get the stopping position right, some doors could open where there’s no platform.

So the foolproof check is for the conductor to verify that the train is in the right position by pointing at that board.

Within two years of introducing this system, incorrectly berthed train incidents were down by 57%.

So this simple old-fashioned method even works in New York.

The most exciting, most cultured, most cutting-edge city in the world.

Of course, Shisa Kanko is not good enough for many fashionable, high-tech westerners.

In Britain, for instance, we would far rather rely on technology than people.

Complicated computer systems must be better than human beings.

They’re much cooler, with a much more modern image.

Which seems to sum us up: image first, reality second.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t have a railway system that works like Japan’s.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.