The banner across the front page of a major consumer advice website in the UK reads:

Whether you were travelling for leisure or work, you have the right to a refund or compensation for a train delay or cancellation experienced on your journey.

The British are used to their trains being late and we have set up elaborate compensation schemes. Compare this to the apology in Japan where the operator said the “great inconvenience we placed upon our customers was truly inexcusable”. That’s right not everything goes well in Japan and if the details are anything to go by, customers are faced with slipping standards. A train last November left 20 seconds early while this time it was a full 25 seconds premature. This is how it was described by the BBC.

According to Japan Today, the train conductor thought his train was scheduled to leave Notogawa Station at 07:11 instead of the actual scheduled time of 07:12. After closing the doors to the commuter train one minute early he realised his mistake and still could have averted the looming embarrassment. But as he couldn’t spot any waiting passengers on the platform, he decided to go ahead and leave early – rolling out of the station 25 seconds ahead of time. Japanese trains have a reputation for extreme punctuality, and it turned out that there were indeed still people hoping to get onboard. Left on the platform, they complained to the rail operator and an official apology was issued shortly afterwards.

Every rail company, anywhere in the world, would love to run their trains like the Japanese with perfect punctuality but they don’t. They reflect their customer’s attitudes towards lateness. There are national differences and generally, inhabitants of the Western, industrial world are far more concerned with punctuality than those of the less industrialised third world.

Just 200 years this would not have concerned anyone. Then,  time was a local issue and we need to remember that the concept of a single unified time is comparatively new.

In the UK Railway Time standardised the country and only by 1847 had most cities adopted London time. It was not until 1880 that the British legal system caught up with the rest of the country and Greenwich Mean Time was legally adopted throughout Great Britain.

Time is used to control and exert authority. Although geographically China spans 6 time zones since 1949 all of China has been run on one single standard time.

Whatever the clock says people are still divided into those that need to be early and those that can never manage it and are always late.

I am among the first group although not at an extreme. I would always rather be early and find something to do than arrive in a rush, full of apology which I would have to do. invariably I catch an early train and always build in too much contingency just in case there are road works or sheep in the road. When it comes to time I assume the worse.

In the other camp of perpetual lateness, Annie and Sasha, you can both step forward and take a bow.

Before I out them I want to make clear that I am not saying that being late is just a female trait. There is many a man I know who I can guarantee will be late, but my two life partners are arch exponents of the skill.

I remember when the family were going on a holiday which started with a ferry across the channel to France. While they sail frequently but still you need to book well in advance. Like a plane, you are booked on a particular ferry which has a check-in time.

I knew Annie would be late and told her that our booking was an hour earlier than it was. We may have been packed, luggage and children strapped into the car, but still, Annie had to make sure that the kitchen was clean. Had I been honest to Annie, we would have missed the ferry.

I am not complaining. Far from it. I knew her and I had a plan and everything always fell into place. I loved her dearly for her picadillo.

Sasha’s lateness is different and something I am still getting to grips with. When she says we will do something after lunch I assume that we will do it early afternoon. But no. It means exactly what she said, after lunch and there is a lot of a day left after lunch.

Whatever the basic national characteristics there is a broad and wide range of personal attitudes to timekeeping. However, each of us needs a reference point and there is nothing better than a train operator keeping to its timetable. There must be many a naturally tardy Japanese but at least they know when the train will be waiting for them but how galling it must have been to see the train leave 25 seconds early.

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