Supporting Kagoshima trams (and other urban light transport)

While popular in many European capitals, the introduction of trams and other light public transport in Japan’s cities outside the largest population centers has proven difficult.

These numbers from already 5 years ago in 2012 show the profitability of trams across Japan is rather poor and with a decreasing population, meaning less passengers, the situation is likely to keep getting worse. For example, while Kagoshima Prefecture’s trams bring in ca $14m in revenue per year, it comes out $0.8m in the red (ie costs overshooting revenues by 5-6%). 55% of the operational costs go to the drivers. Other prefectures do considerably worse such as the Kyoto/Osaka region Keihan trams where $19.5m revenue turns into a yearly loss of $11.6m (ca overshoot of 60% yearly revenue!). Here only 19% of the total cost equation is allocated to driver costs. Across Japan, trams are on average in the red by over 10% while the allocation to driver costs hovers around 38% of total revenue.

Some tech-loving articles posit that cutting out drivers and introducing robotic automated driving everywhere will solve this economic issue. But as we’ve seen with Keihan, just because there is a negative economic balance, driver costs are but one part of the operational cost equation. What about the remaining 62%? Maybe it might be more helpful to look at this of core vs on-demand, rather than man vs machine.

For example, in the case of main tram or bus routes where passenger volumes are higher and recurrent, increasing drive automation and footfall tracking (anonymized density of passengers waiting on the platform for the next train) may lead to higher operational efficiency by more accurate interval timing and rolling stock throughput. In the case of minor routes, that used to be decided via forward-looking city planning, we can increase operational efficiency by turning these routes into on-demand routes with human stewards. As the number of minor routes usually outstrips the number of major routes, it is inevitable that some routes will need to be fully automated. But there will likely be less users, the roads will likely be less well maintained/mapped, there will be more roundabout/unusual routes, and the population will be older and likely less tech-savvy.

Instead of focusing on removing people from the service and increasing the risk of not being able to react to an unfamiliar situation, why not automate the driving part, while keeping staff on board. Staff then become stewards and stewardesses increasing the quality of support to their users, and increasing the brand value of the transportation company. In a software emergency, the staff can still drive the vehicle manually (eg if the road is badly maintained/mapped, sensors are unable to function, or any other mechanical failure). In a health emergency, they can administer first aid as emergency services make their way to the vehicle. In case of tourists, they can provide guidance and stories about the area.

So staff focus moves from mechanical vehicle operation to more creative customer care, tourism and culture, and ensuring the wellbeing of their passengers. Bringing back some of the social comfort of taking public transportation (see the picture above showing London bus conductors and ticket collectors from the early 20th century) would be a welcome benefit provided by drive automation, turning public transport into a mobile and social space for the local community as opposed to just a way of getting from A to B.