Some of Japan's best rail is fast, flexible—and doesn't use express tracks. D.C.'s Silver Line doesn't need them, either.

Flickr/Mega Anorak

The world loves the New York City Subway's express track system. So when Washington, D.C., inaugurated the first segment of its Metrorail Silver Line this summer, the chorus of gripes was set to a familiar tune: Metro was foolish not to build express tracks.

The Silver Line will eventually allow travelers to take Metro directly to Washington Dulles International Airport—which is actually set rather far into neighboring Virginia, now more than an hour away by Metro, then bus. The idea of an express train that would reduce the pain of hauling out to Dulles is certainly appealing to D.C. residents. But it might be even more so to international travelers who have already enjoyed fast rides to the faraway airports that serve such metropolises as London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

The Silver Line extension takes Metro deep into the exurbs, where stations can be far apart: The ride from Spring Hill, the fourth station, to Wiehle-Reston East, the current outermost one, takes nine minutes—the system's longest uninterrupted ride, and an eternity by city-subway standards.

Still, the case for Silver Line express tracks is not self-evident. The extension isn't even scheduled to reach Dulles until 2018, and is unlikely ever to carry passenger loads that approach those of airport rail lines in Europe and Asia. The Washington area, like all U.S. urban regions, is too diffuse, and too auto-oriented.

But as American heavy-rail systems reach further into Sprawlvilles, the choice is not necessarily between running all-local service on two tracks or local and express on four. There are other options.

Chicago's CTA, for example, used to run trains designated "A" and "B," which stopped at all major stations but skipped every other of the lesser-used ones. A/B service ended in 1995, and similar schemes haven't been seriously considered by most other American heavy-rail transit systems, even ones that cover as much suburban territory as Washington's 117-mile Metro or the San Francisco area's 104-mile BART.

To experience a different approach, try traveling by train between Osaka and Kyoto. There are multiple ways to do so, including the high-speed Shinkansen and pretty-fast regular trains run by JR, Japan's semi-privatized national railroad. (Officially, there are seven separate JR companies, but they're closely linked.)

Northeast Kyoto's Eizan Line connects to the Keihan Line for local or express trips to Osaka. (Mark Jenkins)

More eye-opening, however, are two private railways, Hankyu and Keihan, that link the cities, barely 30 miles apart. Each railroad travels from downtown Osaka to central Kyoto, but by a different route. Each can be used for trips between the two, for commutes from suburbs to downtowns or for short hops within the individual cities. And each runs both expresses and locals on the same tracks. In fact, Hankyu and Keihan operate nine different varieties of trains, making as many as 42 (Keihan) or few as six stops (Hankyu) per run.

In the vicinity of the railroads' main Osaka stations, Keihan expands to four tracks and Hankyu to six, in part to serve other routes. But for most of both's Osaka-Kyoto lines, there are only two tracks between stations. The trick is that some of the local stations have passing tracks; while slower trains are collecting or disbursing passengers, faster ones are hurtling by.

As they prove on tight schedules everyday, the Japanese can do the railway equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Meanwhile, in the U.S., multiple trains often back up while waiting for the first to get going.

Adding passing tracks to an existing subway tunnel is no simple matter. But they could be incorporated into future designs, at a much lower cost than building New York-style express tracks and the wider tunnels to accommodate them. Passing tracks could also be added to above-ground sections of existing systems, particularly on those that—like Metro and BART—are hybrid urban-subway and suburban-commuter operations.

The tracks themselves aren't the whole solution, of course. For this technique to work, strict timekeeping is essential. Japanese trains stay on schedule, which is why Keihan can run 12 trains an hour between Kyoto and Osaka—and that's during off-peak periods. Most American rail systems don't even attempt such frequencies, even without the complication of mixing locals and expresses.

Japanese rail operators do have cultural and economic advantages over American ones. Automobile travel is more expensive in Japan, and generally less convenient as well. Japanese urbanites never abandoned trains and buses in large numbers, and so don't have to be enticed back. Also, rail connections are more often more functional and consistently more extensive. Hankyu and Keihan riders can hop to JR lines, Osaka and Kyoto's subways, and other private railways. It takes two transfers, but they can also make their way to one of the lines to Kansai International Airport. (Yes, there's more than one option on that route, too.)

Among the vintage transit vehicles still running in Japan is the wood-floored tram in Matsuyama. (Mark Jenkins)

Japan is known for such as futuristic technologies as bullet trains, automated monorails and—coming fairly soon—maglevs. But these advances have been woven into a system that still includes trams and interurbans. (For a trip into an entirely functional past, take a Hankyu train to Omiya and transfer to the Keifuku line; it's a journey through Who Framed Roger Rabbit via the world's most famous Zen rock garden.)

Like the wooden streetcars that still run in some medium-sized Japanese cities, passing tracks are not new or high-tech. But they work. Every time a Kyoto-bound express zips by a local, it sends some advice to under-performing American rail systems: Don't overbuild. Make maximum use of your network. And keep things moving.

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