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I know that they are all trains, but what would their counterparts be in the US or even Western Europe? Or better yet, when do you use one train as opposed to the other?

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closed as off-topic by Dono, istrasci, Ataraxia, snailplane Aug 22 '13 at 18:05

  • This question does not appear to be about the Japanese language within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

It seems a bit of a false comparison to try to align a single transit system (or single set of systems) against the rest of the world's... – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 22 '13 at 6:16
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a cultural comparison, not directly about any facet of the Japanese language. – istrasci Aug 22 '13 at 14:46
@istrasci I just understood the question to be "What's the difference between 急行, 特急, etc. when referring to trains?" – Earthliŋ Aug 22 '13 at 22:22
They aren't even consistent within Japan (the following are all Osaka lines). Hankyu/Keihan/Kintetsu/Hanshin use 普通・準急・急行・快速急行・特急 with minor variations. JR uses 普通・快速・新快速・特急. And the 特急 on JR is very different from that of private railways. I'm sure there are many regional differences too. – jmac Aug 23 '13 at 3:00
@Tim: See my comment above for why I voted to close. Because it is about a cultural comparison. If the question is edited to focus more on the meanings of the individual types, I'll vote to reopen. – istrasci Aug 23 '13 at 13:45

電車 【でんしゃ】 (densha) is an electric train, because 電 refers to electric.

普通 【ふつう】 (futsuu) is a local train, one that stops at every station.

特急 【とっきゅう】 (tokkyuu) is an express or limited stop train. These usually only stop at main stations to reduce the travel time. 急 refers to the speed such as rapid or fast.

急行 【きゅうこう】 (kyuukou) is a high speed train, relatively speaking, in any area. Refers to the speed of the train, not necessarily the transit time. Rough interpretation of the kanji would mean something like "moves fast".

I doubt these types are specific to any country, to the extent such services are available.

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But for train lines in Japan, a 急行 usually refers to a limited stop train, which (in the case of the 井の頭線, for example) might only be 5 minutes faster over a local train, which takes 31 minutes... It doesn't necessarily travel any faster than the local train. – Earthliŋ Aug 22 '13 at 9:49
@Earthling It sounds like, according to your description, there's no difference between a 特急 and a 急行. They seem to do the same thing. – dotnetN00b Aug 22 '13 at 13:23
@dotnetN00b A (準)特急 is usually stops at even less stations than a regular 急行. I was only nitpicking with the description "high-speed train", because the 急行 doesn't necessarily drive at a faster speed than a local train. – Earthliŋ Aug 22 '13 at 16:46
I recently noticed that 特く can meant special in the sense of limited. My example is a bit esoteric but if a bank becomes a member of the Japan Securities Dealers Association then it is a 特定会員 rather than a 会員、as would be normal for a securities co. Has anybody else noticed other similar cases to this other than naming of train expresses? – Tim Aug 22 '13 at 20:11

Because "in the West" is quite general, I'll just draw a parallel with Germany. In Germany, the national rail network has similarities to the system in Tokyo.

On a regional level there are the

  • RB (Regionalbahn "regional train"), which stops at any town with a train station
  • RE (Regional-Express "regional express"), which leaves out the smallest stations

Between regions there is the

  • IRE (Interregional-Express), which connects bordering regions and stops at large towns or cities

National trains are

  • IC (Intercity), which stops only at cities
  • ICE (Intercity Express) which stops only at the bigger cities

They compare to the trains in Tokyo as follows

  • RB = 各駅停車, 普通
  • RE = (通勤)快速
  • IRE = 急行
  • IC = 準特急
  • ICE = 特急

And, of course, 電車 just means "train" and not any particular type of railway.

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