When heading for Heathrow by train, ready to head out the following morning, I had the pleasure of bumping into some of the people from South West Trains management (at least, that is who they purported to be, and given the reaction of the guard, I don't have any reason [or am too apathetic] to doubt them much). They overheard me asking the guard whether the next stop was Woking (for the airport), and asked where I was going. When I told them Japan, they said some of them had been on a business trip to Japan to have a look at how things were done in the Land of the Rising Sun. The general consensus was that things were OK in Japan, but not really any better than in the UK. Oh yes, this talk about Japanese railways is all very exaggerated... This struck me as a somewhat odd standpoint at the time, even with my relatively sparse experience of the Japanese railways.
Lets start with reliability, and fast forward to February. I had my flight from Tokyo to Takamatsu cancelled by snow. My initial reaction was to phone what felt like every hotel in Tokyo (actually it was about 15-20), and sit put (particularly easy to do in Tokyo, it seems: there is a lot to do, and its not that expensive). Unfortunately, this turned out to be impossible as everywhere I phoned was fully booked. I decided instead I'd risk using the trains.
To be honest, just the fact that Japan can operate train services when there is actual snow on the ground is a novelty in and of itself.. But exaggeration aside, I got from Tokyo to Kagawa in just a few hours (arriving before the time the flight was due into the airport, although I did leave Tokyo 2 or 3 hours early). I suspect a similar feat would be impossible in the UK given the level of snowfall.
Next, cleanliness. Japanese trains are kept in far better shape. Seems the general rule here is the faster the train, the cleaner it is. But perhaps that isn't surprising.
Price. A last minute trip into London from West Dorset is going to set you back upwards of 60 GBP and take almost 3 hours for a ~200 km journey. A journey from Kagawa to Tokyo by bullet train is about 120 pounds, takes 4hrs 20 minutes, and covers a distance of around 700 km. I'll do the maths for you; you pay 30p for each km in the UK, versus ~17p in Japan, while traveling almost 3 times faster, on average (I'll also point out median household incomes are comparable between Japan and the UK, so direct comparison like this isn't unreasonable, but I'll admit the caveat that I'm not sure how the cost-of-living burden differs between the two).
Speed. See above with regards to the bullet train. Perhaps not a fair comparison, though. Most trains in Japan don't seem overly speedy compared to what I'm used to in the UK. But fair or not, Japan has a bullet train, the UK hasn't even started laying track, so far as I know... I could try and weight things back in favor of Blighty by pointing out the UK high speed rail is going to be a good 80 km/h faster than the current Japanese bullet trains; however, just a couple of years after the UK line is due to open, Japan may have superconducting maglev train services between Tokyo and Nagoya. These could go an extra 100 km/h faster at 500 km/h*...
In conclusion, Japan is a very rich country, and has a high population density, it
makes sense this would lead to railways that are more efficient. Clearly I think Japanese trains are the better. I suspect the opposite opinion I got on my way here back in November was not in any small part weighted with national pride. Then again, when its so plain to see that the grass is greener on the other side, I can see the merits in taking the good ol' British attitude of sticking up a middle finger, and not giving a damn. A way of life much under-used over here.