You can’t get there from here: Railway tries to bust “orikaeshi” riders

December 18th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Two years ago, this blog talked about the Hokuso Line, which has been called the most expensive train in Japan. It runs between Keisei Takasago Station in eastern Tokyo and Inba Nihon Idai Station in northern Chiba Prefecture. Since that article was posted the Sky Access Limited Express opened between Keisei Ueno Station and Narita Airport. In Chiba this train, like the Narita Skyliner, runs on the Hokuso tracks. Consequently, a lot of commuters living in eastern Chiba who use the Hokuso Line to get to work in Tokyo were happy, since the Access adds an extra express train, making it faster to get to their jobs.

Unhappy returns: Hokuso Line poster saying you need an extra ticket if you double back

In October, the Chiba New Town Railway, which operates the Hokuso Line, started a crackdown campaign against patrons who do what is called orikaeshi josha (“doubling back”). When we first saw the posters for the crackdown campaign in Inzai Makinohara Station, we misunderstood the reason for orikaeshi. Because Inzai Makinohara is not an Access stop, we assumed passengers returning home from Tokyo would take the express to Inba Nihon Idai Station, which is one station further than Makinohara, and then transfer to a local train going in the opposite direction. However, when we checked train schedules it didn’t make any sense. Most times of the day the local train going west from Inba Nihon Idai leaves one minute before any Access train going east arrives there; which means anyone doing orikaeshi would have to wait at least ten minutes for the next local going west.

What we learned is that people don’t do orikaeshi at Inzai Makinohara when they return home, but rather when they leave for work in the morning. To catch the Access, which cuts up to 20 minutes from their commute, passengers can transfer at the next station going west, Chiba New Town Chuo, but by that time all the seats have probably been filled by people who got on at the previous Access station, Inba Nihon Idai. So by “doubling back” to Inba Nihon Idai from Inzai Makinohara they can get a seat on the express.

However, passengers are supposed to pay to do that, and many don’t. Considering that the fare between Inzai and Inba — one station — is ¥290, the operators of the Hokuso Line obviously believe they’re losing a lot of money. Even for commuters with monthly passes, the difference is more than ¥2,000, which explains the crackdown.

This is not an issue limited to the Hokuso Line. Apparently, it’s also fairly common on the Yokohama Line, the Keisei Honsen, the Minato Mirai-Toyoko Line, and any other commuter line where a local stop follows a terminal, which describes almost all of them. Japanese commuters have been doing orikaeshi to secure seats on long morning rides for as long as there have been commuters, and though railway companies insist that it amounts to cheating, there is little they can do about.

Japan Railways is the only company that allows some orikaeshi josha, partly because it’s sometimes faster and more convenient to get to certain destinations by doubling back. For instance, if you go from Omiya in Saitama Prefecture to Kita Senju in eastern Tokyo, it’s faster to take an express to Ueno Station and then double back on the Joban Line to Kita Senju. The proper “direct” route is to get off at Nippori on the Keihin Tohoku or Yamanote lines and transfer to the Joban line, but that means taking local trains and transferring several times, so JR allows people to go the Ueno route. But passengers are not allowed to overshoot their local line destination on, say, the Chuo Line and then double back from an express stop. Still, “allow” is a misnomer in both these cases since there’s no way JR can figure out if anyone actually did orikaeshi unless they start checking everyone’s ticket on the platform.

No train companies report how much money they lose every year to orikaeshi josha, probably because it’s a loss in theory only. The cost of running a train line has less to do with the number of passengers than with the number of trains and their frequency. Passenger numbers determine revenues, and in theory orikaeshi doesn’t add or subtract to the number of passengers, but since train fares are determined by total distance traveled, orikaeshi is cheating, because the distance traveled is longer even if the destination is the same.

It’s more a matter of principle than finances, though for the Hokuso Line it seems to be both. The operators and the local government are under a lot of pressure from patrons to cut fares, but the line is deep in debt since not as many people use the line as were originally envisioned. Those that do have to pay a lot, and even more, it seems, if they want to guarantee a seat on the morning commute.

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