I can tell you that the MTA in New York City is one of the most unreliable subway systems. Many a time I have sat in the train, waiting for over an hour for it to move from the station due to “signal problems”, or waited at the platform amongst the sea of angry commuters waiting for a train that just wasn’t coming.
The situation with trains is quite difficult in Japan, with Tokyo’s subway system having a reputation as one of the most reliable in the world. Millions of people ride the train everyday, and with station platforms and trains sometimes so horrifically crowded that station attendants literally have to push you into the train, it’s a wonder how trains still manage to be on time.
The secret lies not so much with the reliability of the trains, or the fact that they are incredibly modern and advanced, but rather with platform etiquette.
First and foremost is the “passengers get off first, boarders get on second” culture. People waiting on the platform will always step to the side of the doors of the train to allow people to get off the train first. Very rarely is this unspoken manner rule broken, and people who do break it will be glared at by other commuters. The second is the culture of lining up. People will line up in designated spots on the waiting platform, and lightning will strike those who cut the lines. Lines and order is not something particularly respected in the US, and it’s more of “may the fastest person win” kind of philosophy.
Next is more of the layout of the platform. Platforms are marked so you know exactly where the doors will open, so you can stand and wait exactly in the most convenient spot. More and more stations are also adding automatic gates and fences that only open after train doors have opened, and close before the train doors even close. This is to keep people from falling onto the tracks during rush hour, and to keep people from rushing onto a train whose doors are in the midst of closing. Many train delays in New York subways are definitely due to pushy, careless passengers attempting to force a leg through the doors just as they are closing, and then force the doors open with their hands.
You will never see a Japanese person doing that, and most Japanese people give up the second the doors on a train start to close. No one will even attempt to sprint into those trains.
And maybe one of the most important aspects that help trains be consistently on time is the time table that shows the departure time of the train, and not its arrival time. Trains can arrive on a platform anywhere from 1 minute to 10 minutes before the time table dictates that it’s supposed to depart, so commuters can know to come early instead of at the last minute. To arrive at a train station at 12:30 in order to catch a train that is scheduled to leave that station at 12:30 is already too late.
These are just a few factors that, alone, may not make a significant difference with train punctuality, but combined make a seriously strong recipe that ensures your train will always be on time. Unless someone decides to commit suicide on your track by jumping in front of an oncoming train. In that case, you can be assured that your train and basically every train on every line will be delayed for at least half an hour, messing up your entire day and devastating the entire Japanese economy, which is so dependent on its workers being on time.