It’s not just the bullet trains that are lightning fast in Japan: the train cleaning services are equally as speedy. Martin Wharmby investigates Japan’s Seven-Minute Miracle.

Japan is famous for its high speed, rarely delayed bullet train services. These ‘Shinkansen’ trains offer visitors an incredible experience as they reach speeds of up to 320km/ hr, travelling routes between major cities across the Honshu and Kyushu islands, along with Hakodate on the southernmost tip of Hokkaido. Mainly a high-speed, long distance service, it’s also a reliable commuter service for city workers, and an important tourist attraction.

With more than 300 Shinkansen trains travelling through Tokyo every day, not only is the average delay less than one minute, but the trains themselves are as spotless as they are sleek and futuristic, thanks to the efforts of JR East TESSEI Co.’s custodial teams.

When a Shinkansen train arrives at Tokyo Station, there is a turnaround of 12 minutes between arrival and departure. Three of these minutes are taken up by passengers disembarking at the end of their journey, while new passengers board in less than two, leaving just seven minutes for cleaning crew members to rigorously and effectively prepare the vehicle for its next voyage.

This has become known as the ‘Shinkansen Seven-Minute Miracle’, as TESSEI’s teams perform their services with the speed and precision

of a highly choreographed piece of cleaning performance art.

Lined up with military precision, cleaning crew members bow as a train arrives at the station and welcome passengers as they disembark, collecting any loose trash passengers may be holding. One worker is assigned for each carriage, responsible for around 100 seats inside, whilst specialised crew members are assigned to clean and maintain onboard restrooms.

After an initial check for waste and ascertaining the condition of the carriage, seats are dusted, wiped and turned to face a new direction. Windows and window frames are wiped, shades are opened, tray tables wiped and floors are swept, vacuumed or mopped. Even headrest covers get changed. After a final check for items left behind on seats and luggage racks, the cleaners disembark and bow to greet new passengers.

It’s a mesmerising demonstration of pride, diligence and routine, and a perfect example of Japanese ‘omotenashi’, which represents Japanese hospitality. This spirit of omotenashi is something the country is keen to promote to the outside world.

TESSEI’s teams haven’t always been the efficient, ritualistic cleaners

they are today. Barely a decade ago, workers were treated as mere dispatch cleaners as the job was considered dirty and difficult, with low staff morale, high turnover rates, declining standards and regular complaints.

A key part of the transformation was a change of approach, turning the thankless task of ‘cleaning’ into a ‘service’, where workers could beam with pride on the stage of the ‘Shinkansen Theatre’. Improving teamwork was a key part of turning things around: daily meetings encourage input from all team members and not just supervisors, teams are regularly mixed and rotated, and more colourful uniforms and seasonal pieces of flair (such as flowers) have had a dramatic effect on morale. The average employee age is 52, with a close to 50/50 split between male and female workers.

As you might expect, it’s a tough job: each team may clean more than 120 trains per day, whilst keeping to a tight schedule. Many cleaners don’t make it past the initial three-month probation period. However, the results speak for themselves: the Shinkansen Seven-Minute Miracle is a proficient, remarkable spectacle that is the envy of the world.

Click here to watch the video TRANSPORT CLEANING | 39

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