Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 3

Broken Hill, N.S.W. (Australia) - Sydney, N.S.W. (Australia) - Narita (Japan) - Kamakuro (Japan) - Minamiashigara (Japan) - Kurihama (Japan)

Narita Station

Fare and route maps and ticket vending machines, Narita (City) Rail Station
(Click photo for higher-resolution version)

This week’s leg of The Amazing Race 18 began with all of the teams taking the same weekly Indian Pacific train from Broken Hill to Sydney, Australia.

Trains in Australia have much in common with those in the USA. The route system is limited, although it does include almost all the major cities and is extended by dedicated feeder buses included in train tickets. (We were on one of these buses for part of our “rail” journey from Canberra to Melbourne, for example, as I’ve been more recently for portions of some of my trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles.) Trains in Australia are generally infrequent, especially on the transcontinental north-south and east-west routes and other long-distance trains. As in the USA, many trains operate only once a day in each direction, and some operate even less frequently. But also as in the USA, if there is a train going where you want to go and when you want to go, the standard of service is substantially higher than most locals who don’t themselves ride the trains regularly think. Don’t rely on non-train riders for train information. (Or on non-users of any transportation system for information about it, anywhere.)

The big difference between trains in the USA and in Australia is that trains in the USA have benefited, and continue to benefit, from nationalization and operation under centralized routes and schedule planning and management. Passenger rail service in the USA has improved steadily since the creation of Amtrak as the nation’s first coast-to-coast railroad in 1974. And aside from short-haul commuter service, all passenger trains in the USA are operated by Am,trak, so you only need to consult a single source ( or 1-800-USA-RAIL) for comprehensive fare and schedule information, tickets anywhere Amtrak goes, or rail passes valid across the country.

Conversely, rail service in Australia (as in, among other places, the UK and Japan) appears to have suffered badly from fragmented privatization of the formerly government-run and national railway. There’s no longer any reliable single source of nationwide Australian long-distance rail route, schedule, or ticket price information. To get accurate details, you first have to figure out which railroad operates the service you are interested in, then contact them directly. Other railroads may sell tickets for those in different parts of the country, but only at their “regular” (high) fares. Substantially lower sale prices and discounts are often available only from the operating railroads, not from what purport to be the “national” ticket offices of other railroads.

From Sydney, the racers flew to Narita, the main international airport serving Tokyo but actually located in a separate city (not without its own attractions for tourists) an hour northeast of central Tokyo by the fastest train and easily twice that or more, depending on traffic, by road.

If you’re going to be arriving at Narita, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to go into Tokyo either to find a pleasant place to stay or to get to other parts of Japan. There are hotels in all price ranges in Narita City, some with airport shuttle services and others accessible from the airport by local trains, that are located in busy pedestrian neighborhoods nothing like the industrial-park or strip-development wastelands one tends to associate with “airport hotels”.

Narita also has its own mainline train stations, and there are direct trains and buses connecting Narita Airport and/or downtown Narita with many major provincial cities further afield as well as suburban towns throughout the region — without the need to go through Tokyo at all.

But how do you get out of Narita, whether to Tokyo or — like the racers — through or around Tokyo to places on the other side of central Tokyo to the southwest?

The plethora of available rail routes, connections, and fares from a place like Narita served by multiple stations, railroads, and lines can tempt a newly arrived visitor to decide that it would be easier “just” to rent a car and drive themself, as the racers are told to do. Here, for example, is a detail of part of the system map showing routes and fares from one of the Narita stations:

Narita Station

Partial detail of fare and route map, Narita (City) Rail Station
(Click photo for higher-resolution version)

The important thing to realize is that buying train tickets seems so complex precisely because the rail network is so dense and comprehensive. It’s easier to figure out how to deal with the trains — which are complicated but logical and clearly signed, with a surprising amount of signage in the Latin/English alphabet and English-language menu options on most automated ticketing machines — than to learn to deal with Japanese roads, driving customs, and road signage.

It’s a lot easier to find someone in a train station who speaks enough English to help you buy a ticket than to get someone to help you interpret the signs while you’re driving down the highway. And once you have a ticket, all you need to do a show it to anyone, and they can point you in the right direction to catch your train or make your connection even if they can neither speak nor read a word of English. The same is true in China and many other places.

I’ve talked over and over about the risks the Amazing Race has the cast members take by driving on the “wrong” side of the road for the first time under the time pressure of a race, in city traffic, during rush hour, fresh off a long overnight flight. I’ve also stressed the risks and difficulties of driving and navigation in an unfamiliar place, even where they drive on the side of the road with which you are more familiar.

So I won’t harp on why Cara and Jaime clipped the side mirror of another car. (Although I will note that, when you’re sitting on the opposite side of the car than you are used to, it’s more difficult to keep the car properly centered within a lane than simply to keep to the proper side of the center line of a two-way street.) Instead, I’ll focus on the aftermath of the collision. In later interviews, the racers expressed surprise that the driver of the other car called the police. But what would you do if you got in a fender-bender with another car, and (1) the other driver was clearly at fault, (2) the other car was occupied by four foreigners (two racers and the television camera and sound crew) none of whom spoke the local language or could communicate with you at all, and (3) they immediately got out of the car and started filming everything you did. In the circumstances, saying nothing, calmly calling the police, and waiting for them to arrive and deal with the situation seems exactly right.

There are many places I’ve been where the public doesn’t trust formal authorities to enforce responsibility for damage done by motor vehicles, and at-fault drivers are routinely lynched. In such a place, there might be a reason to flee the scene of an accident before you are set upon by a mob. But in such a case you should turn yourself in at a police station as soon as possible, for your own protection and to avoid making things even worse for yourself. Japan, however, is clearly not a place like that. It’s a place where people have confidence in the rule of law. In Japan, unlike, say, India or much of Africa, there’s no need for drivers or those they hit to try to take matters into their own hands.

The key lesson for travellers is what happens once the police show up at the accident scene. Jaime shows them her International Driving Permit (clearly identifiable as such in the screen capture below), they take down her information, and soon she and Cara are on their way:

International Driving Permit

Jaime shows her International Driving Permit to Japanese police

An IDP is basically a certified translation of your regulars drivers license, in standardized format, into ten languages including, yes, Japanese:

International Driving Permit International Driving Permit

Cover and Japanese translation page of an International Driving Permit

It’s not clear from what was shown on TV whether the police also looked at Jaime’s U.S. drivers license. Not all police or other officials realize that an IDP isn’t valid on its own. But it isn’t, and you should always have your drivers license from the USA or your home country with you and available to show police or other officials in conjunction with your IDP, if they ask.

I’ve been questioned by Japanese police. They present a stern demeanor, and stops and document checks of foreigners are common (as they are, of course, in many countries, with little regard for whether they are legally justified). But if everything is in order — as it was for Jaime once she showed that she had a valid drivers license and was willing to provide her information for liability and reporting purposes — they aren’t likely to beat you up or demand bribes from a foreign tourist. Without an IDP, however, Jaime would probably have been detained for substantially longer, and possibly taken to jail.

[Your mileage may vary in other countries. See the comment below from Wayne Bernhardson, who keeps a car in Chile and drives regularly throughout Chile and Argentina to update his Moon Handbooks.]

In the USA, you can get an IDP from the AAA, even if you aren’t an AAA members, either in person while you wait at any of their offices or by mail. If you think there is any chance that you might want to drive while you’re abroad, get an IDP before your trip. Even if you don’t plan to drive, it’s a useful piece of secondary documentation that you can also use for other purposes, such as leaving with the hotel front desk instead of a passport, or as security for something you’re renting or borrowing.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 6 March 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Edward, regarding your comments on International Driver's Licenses, I haven't bothered getting one for eons. At least in southern South America, nobody cares one whether you have one, and I always show my California license when necessary. No policeman has ever flinched and, in fact, there may be a distinct advantage to having such a license when dealing with corrupt cops in Argentina -- they can be intimidated.

In Argentina and Chile, at least, I see the IDL as a waste of time and money, and I've driven a lot in both countries. I don't drive much in Uruguay, but I wouldn't worry there either.

Posted by: Wayne Bernhardson, 7 March 2011, 18:21 ( 6:21 PM)

I preplanned my recent Japan rail travel using - Japan's answer to I did have some trouble buying tickets in Kyoto station for travel in other parts of Japan, and wound up using a travel agency. But when I needed to trade in a ticket because I changed my route I had no trouble with the ticket office in Takamatsu.

Posted by: mytimetotravel, 8 March 2011, 14:13 ( 2:13 PM)

I did not understand anything of Hyperdia so ended up using a travel agency that helped me with everthing. Totaly worth the money:) They even gave me their phone number so that I could call them later if I needed help.

Posted by: Anonymous, 11 March 2011, 11:35 (11:35 AM)

U.S. citizens should take care to obtain their IDL only from the AAA. The other organization authorized to issue one barely seems to exist, and everything on the web is a scam.

Posted by: Paul Karl Lukacs, 16 March 2011, 04:03 ( 4:03 AM)

Surprised that [no name] had trouble with hyperdia. I planned all the train travel for a three week trip using it and thought it was great. Gave you all the options and information you could want on types of trains and the costs. Of course, you do have to know where you want to go.

Posted by: Kathy, 16 March 2011, 14:51 ( 2:51 PM)

We don't have problems with Hyperdia either. I guess it depends on the person's experience or plans. To use Hyperdia, the user should have a plan ahead or else confusion is to be expected.

Posted by: Janet, 22 March 2011, 19:09 ( 7:09 PM)
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