Social Engineering by Railways

Where do you travel every day? Are there any subtle ploys to manipulate your behavior? Would you recognize them or are they just part of the location? Social engineering sometimes gets a bad rap (or is it rep?) in the mainstream, but the public-facing edge of that sword can keep order as it does in Japanese train stations. They employ a whirlwind of psychological methods to make the stations run like clockwork.

The scope of strategies ranges from the diabolical placement of speakers emitting high-frequency tones to discourage youthful loitering to the considerate installation of blue lights to deter suicides. Not every tactic is as enlightened as suicide prevention, sometimes, just changing the grating departure buzzer to a unique tune for each station goes a long way to relieving anxiety. Who wants to stand next to an anxious traveler who is just getting more and more sweaty? Listen below the break to hear what Tokyo subway tunes sound like.

Maybe you can spot some of these tricks where you live or something similar can ease your own commute. Perhaps the nearest subway has a piano for stairs or a 3D printing cyborg.

29 thoughts on “Social Engineering by Railways

  1. For those who remember Astro Boy / Atom, Takodanobaba station on the Yamanote line (same line as shown in the header picture) has the theme music from the show as the train departure tone, being the future location of the Astro Boy series.

    On the psychological side, For a while I had the message tone on my phone set to the Tokyo station departure music that is used for the Yamanote line.
    My brothers Japanese wife hated it. She said it mde her feel like she had to go to work every time my phone rang. :D

      1. Well they use entirely different tunes.. some stations and lines have no tunes. Others do.

        For a while, one line was using Star Wars themes to celebrate the recent movie releases.

  2. Meanwhile in Poland we’re still strugging with renovating trains so that they don’t have toilets that open and drop “stuff” directly on tracks (srsly!). FYI: taking a dump while train is at the station will land you a 500 zlotys (117 EUR) fine.

      1. Swindon rail station (south west UK) actually had some stunted cherry tomatoes (complete with fruit!) growing in the “manure” between the tracks the last time I was there.

      1. The more east you go, the more likely you are to see a train arrive on time… roads in Ukraine and especially Russia are for the lack of a better word crap, so they depend on the trains a lot more, which tends to put both pressure and money on keeping things working and on time.

      2. The normal lines are usually within a few seconds of the advertised time. The high speed lines (shinkansen) aim to arrive at the precise second they are scheduled to. The drivers actually adjust their speed to make up for 3 second delays.

        1. More railroad/vehicle crossing accidents.* “Beat the train” is much like “beat the yellow” with worse consequences.

          *Especially significant when carrying hazardous materials within a city.

        2. Gosh this tired lie gets old fast. The USA has many cities with rich commuter rail systems. For example, New York and Boston each run hundreds and hundreds of commuter trains every day, and both cities have hundreds of rail vehicles on order.

          1. Your other comment was too far nested so I couldn’t reply, but, where in CT are there actual legitimate high speed lines? Lived here all my life, remember when they had someone from Amtrak come to my elementary school (I think I might be dating myself) to talk about how quiet the Acela was going to be, and have only ever actually seen them a handful of times and it was my understanding that (almost) nowhere do they really make it up to their top-speed

    1. Here in Romania we had a sketch from Toma Caragiu (was a very fine comedian). He (as a passenger) and the train conductor are near the toilet. He is in desperate need to use it, but the train is in station and it is forbidden to do so. All the dialog between them hints to his unpleasing situation, full with double entendre, making it even worse for the passenger.
      In the end, while the passenger celebrates the train departure from the station, the train conductor goes first.

  3. A little dissatisfied with this article. Its all like “hey social engineering around trains happens.”

    “Oh really? Like how?”

    :: Blink:: ::blink::

    Ok here’s my list from living in Japan:
    1: JR tunes are meant to give you subtle reminders of which station you are at. As in, if you remember the tune for the place to always get off at, even if you are dozing off you will suddenly jump out of your seat just before the train leaves.

    2: escalators change direction throughout the day to accommodate maximum flow in one direction for morning and evening rush hours.

    3: the yellow ribbed tiles are for the blind to follow safely around the station, but serve double duty on the platform to remind you that you are too close to the edge when trains are arriving (you feel the ribs sharply under your feet).

    4: blue and pink triangle/arrows on the line map above the door inside the train indicate which side the doors will open depending on which direction the train is moving.

    5. There is the least one line map/list on the platform which indicates what train car is optimal to change to a different line at upcoming stations.

    6: on JR lines, the train number is the time that train started, and the A or B before the time indicates if it going towards or away from the city.

    1. Bonus: trains leave ON the minute, or 30 seconds AFTER the minute. So if you are rushing for a train that’s on the platform, you check your watch and it just changed to the leaving time, and the bill isn’t already ringing, then you have 30 more seconds.

    2. 1: JR tunes are meant to give you subtle reminders of which station you are at.

      I too thought so for the longest time, but that theory doesn’t hold up when you have consecutive stations playing the same tune. For example, about half of the Yamanote stations use the same eki-melo when going clockwise, most notably the whole 7(!) station stretch between Otsuko and Uguisudani.

      (I also pretty much gave up on getting the Asakusabashi eki-melo out of my head, and use one of its variants as my wake-up ringtone now.)

  4. Meanwhile, the MTA is still running off of pre-war signalling tech, a vast majority of the stations are disability inaccessible (which if I recall many were in Japan as well), and delays run between minutes to hours. We’re about a decade away from proper signaling and train control, let alone neat psychological cues. You know what keeps you in line? Fear. Fear of your fellow New Yorker.

    But for what it’s worth, the NYC subway is actually pretty good at what it does. The lines are easy to remember and there are plenty of transfers (unless you want to go east-west above 59th street then take a hike, pal). It’s serviceable. But damn does it need work.

  5. Travelling on the Japanese trains is a pleasure. The carriages are air conditioned when needed and have heated seats. The announcements on train and off are clear and the tunes are cute and entertaining – personal favourite, Harajuku.
    I even have a Chuo line moneybox which plays one of a bunch of tunes every time you put a coin in.
    And of course the trains are frequent and always on-time. I used to avoid rush hours, but don’t bother now – even at Shinjuku station (3.5m people a day) travelling on the trains at peak times is, whilst a little crushed, still perfectly comfortable.
    And they have women only carriages too.
    And the apps you an use show you which train is next and what the crowding and even temperature is on every carriage!
    Compared to the abomination of a rail system we have in the UK the Japanese one is heaven.

  6. This post is bittersweet.

    First because it reminded me of my one Japan trip (business) and we took trains a lot. Also I have been on European trains. Ah, Switzerland… they apologized because the gorgeous, spotless train was 30 s late.

    And secondly because I’ve recently taken a job in downtown Toronto, and fucking Union Station is a miserable disaster. Perpetually under construction and already too small… they need cops to manage the pedestrians at the intersections when we all pour out at in the morning. Dingy, narrow corridors, crap layout, Jammed platforms cos they’ve stolen at least one track to park dusty construction equipment. Just awful. Worst part of my commute.

    The social engineering there is … we’re clueless and for the most part we don’t give rats ass

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