Skip to main content

Tokyo Subway & Hong Kong MTR, Two of the Top MRT Or Subway Systems in Asia

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Proud to be an engineer, Mazlan loves to share the engineering marvels in Asia and other parts of the world.

Asia's Mass Rapid Transit - Busiest & Cleanest?

Although London Underground or the Tube is the world oldest subway system serving more than 1.0 billion passenger rides yearly, it is not the busiest subway. The busiest subway systems are in Asia.

Best Subway In The World

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

Tokyo Subway Stations Are One of The Cleanest In The World

Tokyo Subway Stations Are One of The Cleanest In The World

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

But not all these superlatives translate to 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 System

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.

The Busiest Subway In The World

Tokyo is currently the busiest subway in the world with more than 8.7 million people ridership daily and it is also one of the largest subway systems in the world.

It also ranked highly in terms of efficiency, reliability, safety, and cleanliness.

Crowded Subway

Despite the complicated mesh and size of its metro and commuter lines (see Tokyo subway map below), Tokyo subway moves its 35 million people 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%.

Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo Subway Rush Hour

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 a good standing space, if not, a seat. Tokyo subway rush hour like 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 hour, 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!

Women Only Carriages

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.

Commuter etiquette poster at Tokyo subway:  rules on seating

Commuter etiquette poster at Tokyo subway: rules on seating

Exploring 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.

Scroll to Continue

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 - Reasons: long commute time, can be 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 - Reasons: long commute time, can be two hours. They also stay out late drinking, but have to be up early for work

Tokyo Subway Pass

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

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. You need to show your passport to confirm that you are a foreign tourist.

UPDATE: Besides Tokyo airport, this ticket is now available at selected Overseas Travel Agencies, selected Tokyo Metro Pass Offices, Tourist Information Office, BIC CAMERA and Sofmap stores and Laox stores.

Suica or Pasmo Prepaid Card (IC Card)?

Suica and Pasmo are prepaid cards issued by two different companies. Both can be used for all trains, subways, and buses in Tokyo and at selected stores.

It is sold at all the subway stations and the cheapest is ¥1,000 inclusive of ¥500 deposit. You can top up at the ticket machines and special re-charging machines within the subway stations.

Before leaving Japan, bring the used card to the ticket office for the deposit refund and any unused portion, less service charge.

Although there is no discount on the prepaid card over regular tickets, it offers the convenience especially when you are in the congested Tokyo subway stations.

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

Tokyo Subway Hours

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.

Tokyo Subway Facilities

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 the 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, Tokyo subway map, 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 takes 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 are many station exits and all are numbered. Look out for the yellow signboards showing the exit to take for your destination.

Tokyo Metro - An Official Partner of Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 ( Passenger Rail Transport Services)


Tokyo Metro Business Performance

Besides rail transport services, Tokyo Metro also develop assets on its idle land and areas within the station premises. This includes office buildings, hotels, housing, golf driving range and rental storage space. It also has the retail related business, advertising and IT business within its subway stations.

At the 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).

UPDATE 2016 Financial Performance: Net Sales ¥ 382.9 billion and Profit ¥ 89 billion

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 results for Toei transportation is not available in English.

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

Tokyo Metro Oversea Rail Business

Tokyo Metro's operation and maintenance expertise is very much sought after and has now formed technical cooperation and assistance for Hanoi Metro Company, which began operation in April 2017.

It is involved in the preparatory studies for urban railways in Manila, Philippines and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

How Asian Subways Compare to Subways in Europe & the USA

City (Opening Date)Network Length mile (km)Number of StationsDaily Ridership (2013)

Tokyo Subway (Dec 30, 1927)

199 (320)



Hong Kong MTR (Oct 1, 1979)

144 (230.9) as of 2016

93 (as of 2016)


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?

Hong Kong MTR logo

Hong Kong MTR logo

2. Hong Kong Metro System

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.

Hong Kong MTR

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

Hong Kong MTR Service & Performance

Hong Kong MTR History

Hong Kong MTR started its first railway line in 1979 with only nine stations over a five-mile (8 km) track line. It was operated by two railway operators, MTR Corporation (Mass Transit Railway Corporation) and KCRC (Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation). On 2 Dec 2007, these operations were merged under MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL).

As of 2016, Hong Kong MTR has now expanded to 230.9km of track line and 93 stations. The 'Express Rail Link' connecting Hong Kong to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and 'Shatin to Central Link' which are under construction will add another 43km route length to the overall Hong Kong MTR network. As of mid-2017, these projects are about 94.3% completed.

Ridership has also increased from 85,000 a day to about 5.59 million people ride daily (2016 figures for Hong Kong only, excluding the China Mainland lines).

MTR Financial Performance

Hong Kong Metro is also one of the few rail companies that are profitable. Based on its 2017 Interim Report, for the half year ended 30th June 2017, it made an unaudited profit of HK$7.533b. In 2016, it reported a net profit of HK$10.254b. These are impressive financial performances for any company in the world. Their integrated approach to rail operations and developing properties on its railway assets make all these possible.

(Note: When I wrote this article in 2014, the performance for the financial year 2013 was a net profit of HK$8.6b (US$1.11b))

Hong Kong MTR Operating Hours

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

Hong Kong Octopus Card

Providing good user experience is crucial to MTR’s success. The Hong Kong Octopus Card payment system, a contactless stored value card, can be used not only on the subways but also on 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.

Hong Kong MTR Map

Hong Kong MTR Map

Hong Kong MTR Map

Hong Kong MTR 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

Hong Kong is Top in The Urban Mobility Index Study

The international consultancy company, Arthur D Little 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 how it manages the various public transport 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 intend to spend most of your time traveling 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

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

In 2013, there were several service disruptions and in early 2014, a 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 the effectiveness of their contingency plan.

Surprisingly when surveyed, 40 percent of the respondents were not happy with how MTR handled the incidents. 60% were dissatisfied with the contingency plan of alternative transport arrangement. However, they were satisfied with how the MTR's staff handled their grievances and there was 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 2016, it carried 1.80 billion passengers in the six cities outside of Hong Kong over a total track line of 960 km.

Part 2 will Cover Seoul Subway & Taipei MRT

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

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

We will now move to the second part in this series that 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 A


John Doe on October 20, 2018:

Quote: Hong Kong MTR started its first railway line in 1979 with only nine stations over a five-mile (8 km) track line. It was operated by two railway operators, MTR Corporation (Mass Transit Railway Corporation) and KCRC (Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation).

This is wrong. The 8-km line was the first stage of the "Modified Initial System" to open (the three stages opened within months), which was operated solely by MTR. The KCRC wasn't even established at the time (the KCR was operated as a department of the Hong Kong Government). KCRC also hadn't operated any of the "metro" lines throughout its history as a railway operator. Just being pedantic...

BruceT on February 22, 2018:

I was in Hong Kong three months ago and was greatly impressed with the efficiency and you feel safe. If only all subways are like this.

Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on January 02, 2015:

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 from Australia on December 28, 2014:

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

Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on June 03, 2014:

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

Michael on June 02, 2014:

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.

Related Articles