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Tokyo Subway & Hong Kong MTR, Two of the Top 4 Subways or MRT Systems in Asia

Updated on April 26, 2016
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Proud of being an engineer, Mazlan loves to share the engineering marvels around the world

Asia has the Busiest Subway

Although London Underground or the Tube is the oldest public metro system in the world that serves about 1.065 billion passenger rides yearly, it is not the busiest subway. The busiest subway system is in Asia.

In terms of world ranking, Asia is also home to the busiest metro station, top MRT system, most crowded subways, futuristic and cleanest subway, etc. The list can go on.

Tokyo Subway Route Map
Tokyo Subway Route Map | Source

On the opposite end of the scale, it also has its fair share of listings.

However, not all of these superlatives translate to an efficient and reliable subways; factors that are important to commuters.

On these criteria, Asia is also in the Top 10.

Tokyo Subway, Hong Kong MTR, Seoul Subway and Taipei MRT are the top four MRT Systems in Asia that ranked highly in terms of safety, reliability, efficiency, and cleanliness.

In this series, I will cover Tokyo Subway and Hong Kong MTR.

1. Tokyo Subway

Asia saw its first subway in 1927 when Japan opened the 1.37 mile (2.2 km) GINZA subway line linking Asakusa and Ueno, the two districts in Tokyo known for its cultural sites.

It has now expanded to 13 lines and 290 stations and operated by two companies, Tokyo Metro that has nine lines, and Toei Subway that has the other four lines.

World's Busiest Subway

Tokyo subway is currently the busiest in the world with more than 8.7 million people ridership daily. It also ranked highly in terms of efficiency, reliability, safety and cleanliness.

Despite the somewhat complicated mesh and size of its metro and commuter lines, Tokyo subway moves its 35 million people quite efficiently. But it can be notoriously crowded during peak hours. In fact, it is overloaded by more than 100% of its designed capacity. On some lines, it can be as much as 190%.

Commuter etiquette poster at Tokyo subway:  rules on seating
Commuter etiquette poster at Tokyo subway: rules on seating | Source

Tokyo Subway Rush Hours, Oshiya & Women-Only Carriages

If you are a tourist, plan your journey on the subway to be between 10 am and 5 pm and you will be assured of at least a good standing space, if not, a seat. Tokyo subway's rush hours, as in most major cities in the world, are between 7.30 am to 9.30 am and 5.30 pm to 7.30 pm.

If you are one to experience something different and be caught and squashed in Tokyo subway rush hours, then this is it. You might even be pushed by those men in white gloves, also known as Oshiya or ‘pushers’ into the crowded trains. The maddest place to experience this is at Shinjuku Station. Have fun!

There are also cases of women commuters being groped during these rush hours. To ensure their safety, Tokyo Metro introduced women-only carriages and you will know them from the pink signs on the platform and in the carriage.

Use the Subways, Buses, Trams & Japan Rail to explore Tokyo Metropolis

The Greater Tokyo Area with a land area of 240 sq. miles (622 sq. km) is not fully accessible on subways alone. You need a combination of buses, trams and the urban Japan Rail (JR) lines, especially the JR Yamanote Line, to have full access to this huge metropolis.

However, the subways cover most of the tourist areas and Tokyo’s city center. Unless you want to explore Old Tokyo and the suburbs, the subways are good enough for your travel plan.

Commuter etiquette poster in Tokyo Subway on sleeping in the train & photo of someone sleeping off the shoulder of stranger. Reasons: long commute time, an hour, two hours. They also stay out late drinking, but have to be up early for work
Commuter etiquette poster in Tokyo Subway on sleeping in the train & photo of someone sleeping off the shoulder of stranger. Reasons: long commute time, an hour, two hours. They also stay out late drinking, but have to be up early for work | Source

Tickets to Tokyo Subway

There are several types of tickets available, but generally, day passes ticket is expensive as it does not cover all the subway lines.

Subway Tickets for Tourist

But if you are a tourist, the new Tokyo Subway Day Passes Ticket will let you travel on both metro networks and sold at the Tokyo airports only. Introduced on April 22nd, 2014, this is a better option than the normal day pass tickets sold at the subways.

The new one day pass sells for ¥800, two days for ¥1,200 and three days for ¥1,500 (US$7.85, US$11.80 & US$14.70 respectively). If your stay is more than three days, the 3-day pass is good value.

Suica or Pasmo Prepaid Card Works Out Cheaper for Longer Stay

If you missed this at the airport, buy single ticket or prepaid card as it is cheaper. Although there is no discount on prepaid card over single ticket, it is convenient and accepted on any trains, buses and several shops and restaurants. You can buy the Suica or Pasmo prepaid card at all the subway stations.

If you have problem in figuring out how much to pay for the ride, as some vending machines are only in Japanese, then buy the cheapest fare. Before you exit, go to the 'fare adjustment' machine near the exit gates and pay the difference.

You can also use prepaid cards from other major cities in Japan, on the Tokyo subways.

Tokyo subway 2012 poster on Commuter etiquette: Be considerate of passengers getting on and off the train
Tokyo subway 2012 poster on Commuter etiquette: Be considerate of passengers getting on and off the train | Source

The Tokyo subway starts early at 5 am and depending on the line will ends between midnight and 1 am. It does not run 24/7 as it needs the downtime for maintenance.

Facilities at Tokyo Subway

Positive user experience is important and to help commuters, Tokyo Metro provides the following facilities:

  • Free 3G Wi-Fi
  • Easier-to-understand signage
  • Signage in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean
  • Barrier-free facilities
  • Free smartphone apps for easier subway navigation
  • Facilities for the visually impaired such as raised yellow rubber guide strips for the flooring, Braille at base of railings, etc.
  • Public announcement in both Japanese and English
  • Stations are numbered and color coded
  • Service Managers are available at selected stations to help commuters with train information etc.
  • Websites, maps and leaflets in four other languages including English

Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway Logos
Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway Logos

Tokyo Subway Tips

  • Cell phones must be on silent mode when in the subway
  • Running for the train is prohibited at all stations
  • How long it will take to reach the destination along each line is posted on platform pillars
  • Which compartment is best for quick transfer between lines, is posted on platform pillars
  • There many station exits, which are numbered. Look out for the yellow signboards that shows which exit to take to your destination

Tokyo Metro Business Performance

Besides the rail transport services, Tokyo Metro also develop assets on its idle land and areas within the station premises.

At time of writing, only the 2010 financial reports (in English) are available and its consolidated net profit after tax is US$380 m (¥ 38,567 m). It may not be as spectacular as Hong Kong Metro's financial results, but it is an impressive performance for a Japanese company as several other Japanese companies are losing money. (Japan Airline, Japan's electronics giants Sony, Panasonic, Sharp are some examples).

Toei Subway Business Performance

The other operator of Tokyo subway system, Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation or Toei, in addition to the subway, also operate local bus services, light rail lines, fiber optic cable network and several electric power generators.

Unfortunately, financial result (in English) for Toei transportation is not available and I am not able to compare its performance. I will update this information, once it is available.

Although there are talks of merging the operation of these two entities, it is still far from realization.

How Asian Subways Compare to Subways in Europe & the USA

(click column header to sort results)
City (Opening Date)  
Network Length mile (km)  
Number of Stations  
Daily Ridership (2013)  
Tokyo Subway (Dec 30, 1927)
189 (305)
Hong Kong MTR (Oct 1, 1979)
109 (175)
Seoul Subway (Aug 15, 1974)
203 (327)
7.0m (2012)
Taipei MRT (Mar 28, 1996)
75 (121)
1.9m (1st Q 2014)
London Underground (Jan 10, 1863)
250 (402)
Moscow Metro (May 15, 1935)
202 (326)
Paris Metro (July 19, 1900)
137 (220)
4.22m (2012)
New York Subway (Oct 27, 1904)
229 (368)

Where are Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, & Hong Kong?

show route and directions
A markerTokyo -
Tokyo, Japan
get directions

B markerSeoul -
Seoul, South Korea
get directions

C markerTaipei -
Taipei City, Taiwan
get directions

D markerHong Kong -
Hong Kong
get directions

Hong Kong MTR logo
Hong Kong MTR logo

2. Hong Kong Metro or MTR

Hong Kong may not be as densely populated as Tokyo, but with more than 7 million populations over a tiny area of 426 sq. mi (1,104 km2), its public transport system must offer a reliable and efficient service. And when 90% of all travels within Hong Kong are through its mass transport system, every small details matter.

Surprisingly, Hong Kong Metro or Mass Transit Railway managed to offer all these. They are so efficient and reliable that it does not even have a time-table. It has a 99.9% on-time performance and train arrives and leaves every minute.

MTR's Service & Performance

It is also one of the few rail companies that is profitable. For financial year 2013, it declared an underlying profit of HK$8.6b (US$1.11b), a very impressive financial performance for any company in the world. Their integrated approach of rail operations and developing properties on its railway assets make all these possible.

Hong Kong MTR started its first railway line in 1979 with only nine stations over a five mile (8 km) track line. Now it has increased to 135 miles (218 km) of track and stops at 84 main stations and at 68 Light Rail stops. In its planning stage are additional 35 miles (56 km) of new track line to its Hong Kong network.

Ridership has also increased from 85,000 a day to about 5.2 million people ride daily (2013 figures)

It operates only 19 hours a day from 5.30 am to 1.00 am.

Providing good user experience is crucial to MTR’s success. Its Octopus card payment system, a contact-less stored value card, works on the subways, tramways, buses, vending machines, convenience stores and even at restaurants. The ease-of-use and acceptance at many establishments creates commuters’ loyalty and continued patronage.

360 degree panoramic view of The Hung Hom Subway Station, formerly known as Kowloon Station in Hong Kong
360 degree panoramic view of The Hung Hom Subway Station, formerly known as Kowloon Station in Hong Kong | Source

Hong Kong MTR's Enhanced Services and Facilities

In addition, you also get the following goodies:

  • Free 4G Wi-Fi up to 15 minutes per session with maximum five sessions per day
  • ATM machines
  • Clean and safe subway
  • Clean public washrooms
  • Clear signage
  • Shops and banks within the premise
  • Bill payment services
  • Free popular newspapers and other publications
  • Takeaway food outlets and post boxes that are provided inside most of the stations or close to their exits
  • For the visually impaired, there's the tactile flooring and Braille plates for guidance

If these are not enough, you can even return your Hong Kong Public Library books at the Book Drop at any of the three MTR stations.

These are some of the reasons, why Hong Kong MTR is one of the best-run metro and top railway operators in the world.

Hong Kong Metro is equipped with free 4G WiFi and everyone is busy on their hand phone or laptop
Hong Kong Metro is equipped with free 4G WiFi and everyone is busy on their hand phone or laptop | Source

Hong Kong is Top in The Urban Mobility Index Study

The international consultancy company, Arthur D Little, also confirmed this in their study that places Hong Kong in the top spot in the Urban Mobility Index 2.

This Index compares 84 cities around the world, on its mobility trends and on how it manages the various mobility challenges, now and for the future.

Hong Kong MTR Tips

  • Disneyland Resort Line has Mickey Mouse-shaped windows
  • Your unused portion of Octopus card can be refunded at the airport, as you leave Hong Kong
  • Unless you intent to spend most of your time travelling on the subway, Tourist Passes is not worth buying. It's cheaper to use the Octopus card
  • Most of the tourist areas on Hong Kong Island are on the Blue Line and for Kowloon, on the Red Line

MTR' Service Disruptions

However, with any well-managed corporation, hiccups do happen.

In 2013, there were several service disruptions and in early 2014, power failure at one of the subway lines disrupted services for nearly five hours.

This prompted the Transport Ministry to consider salary cut and linking MTR's directors' salary to the company's service performance.

What matters is how the company managed this risk and how effective is their contingency plan.

Surprisingly, when surveyed, 40 percent of the respondents were not happy with how MTR handled the incidents. 60% were dissatisfied on the contingency plan of alternative transport arrangement. However, they were satisfied with how the MTR's staff handled their grievances and there were sufficient signage in the stations.

(Although Hong Kong MTR is a public listed company, its majority shareholder is the Government of the Hong Kong SAR (through The Financial Secretary Incorporated))

MTR's Overseas and Mainland China Business Investments

MTR had ventured beyond Hong Kong and are now in mainland China, Australia, Sweden and the UK.

In 2013, it carried 1.35 billion passengers in the six cities outside of Hong Kong.

Between Tokyo Subway & Hong Kong MTR, which you think provide the better facilities

See results

Part 2 will Cover Seoul Subway & Taipei MRT

The similarity between Tokyo Subway and Hong Kong MTR, besides providing efficiency, reliability and cleanliness is listening to the commuters.

They provide the small details that matters to the users and this in turn translate to a positive passenger experience. Even tourists that use the services go away with high praises.

We will now move to the second part in this series that will look at how Seoul Subway and Taipei MRT make it to the top, not only in Asia, but in the world's best Metro and subway list.

© 2014 Mazlan


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    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 2 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi Anne. You are so right. Hong Kong MTR is fast and clean and with its Octopus card, it is also easy to get around. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. May 2015 bring you greater heights of success at HP.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      I love the Hong Kong MTR - it's so easy to get around, covers so many places, is fast, and clean. Last trip I discovered how easy the octopus card is to use. Voted up

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi Michael, thanks for highlighting this. It is now corrected to HKSAR instead of Chinese Government.

    • profile image

      Michael 3 years ago

      Something wrong here. "Although Hong Kong MTR is a public listed company, its majority shareholder is the Chinese Government"

      It majority shareholder is the HKSAR Government.