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After Tokyo Commuter Train Leaves 20 Seconds Early, Company Apologizes

A Japanese train company says it has spoken to a crew that left a station without consulting the time.
JTB Photo
UIG via Getty Images
A Japanese train company says it has spoken to a crew that left a station without consulting the time.

Passengers on a morning train on the Tokyo region's Tsukuba Express line might not have noticed anything was amiss Tuesday. But when their train left Minami-Nagareyama station, it did so 20 seconds ahead of schedule — and when the company noticed, it issued an apology to customers.

The train was traveling northbound on the line that connects Tokyo's Akihabara station with Tsukuba to the northeast — a trip that takes less than an hour. After passengers had boarded, the crew didn't check the time, resulting in the slightly early departure "around" 9:44 a.m., the company said.

The train had arrived at the station on time, at 40 seconds past 9:43 a.m. It was supposed to leave one minute later, at 9:44:40 — but instead, it left at 9:44:20.

"We deeply apologize for the severe inconvenience imposed upon our customers," the Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company said, in a translation by Sora News 24.

In its online posting, the rail company says it didn't receive any complaints from passengers over the 20-second discrepancy. It added that the train's crew has been spoken to and taught to prevent recurrences.

On the bright side, anyone who missed the 9:44 a.m. Tsukuba Express train because of the 20-second premature departure would have had to wait just four minutes for the next northbound train, according to the line's timetable.

But even a small lapse in punctuality can be disruptive, in part because, as Casey Baseel reports for Sora News 24, some people in Japan synchronize their phones or watches to the time shown in train stations, so they'll be sure to make their train.

Baseel writes: "It stands to reason, then, that at least a few people would miss a train if it left 20 seconds earlier than usual, and even if there's another coming in four minutes, adding four minutes to that leg of their commute might cause them to miss other transfers on the way to their destinations, with the effect snowballing enough that they end up being late for work or school."

Commenters on the story have had a range of reactions — including from people who say Japan's reputation for extreme punctuality in its trains is overblown.

But on Sora News and other sites, readers also noted that they would welcome such problems.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.