Hong Kong: High frequency of trains, larger capacity than S'pore

The train systems in Hong Kong and Taipei have been often cited as good examples of efficiency in moving people in crowded cities. Royston Sim visits both cities to find out what makes these systems successful.

It is 5.45pm on a weekday at Admiralty, an interchange station for the Island and Tsuen Wan lines on Hong Kong's MTR - its version of Singapore's MRT.

Throngs of commuters are rushing across the platform to transfer from one train to another at the station, which is located near the Central Business District.

Crowds build up quickly at the platform, and it gets at least as crowded as the Jurong East MRT station does during rush hour. Every train is packed to the brim. But turnover is quick.

Trains arrive at intervals of just over a minute. Each MTR train, with eight carriages compared to six in Singapore, can also carry more passengers. And there is a staff member at every door to help in crowd control.

Singaporean Cherie Wong, 32, has worked in Hong Kong for six years and commutes daily by train from Central to Quarry Bay. "In Hong Kong, trains are crowded but they arrive within a minute, and rarely are there any delays."

The MTR Corp, which was established in 1975 but privatised in 2000, pays for the running of the rail system and the construction of new lines. And still, the company is able to roll in massive profits, despite getting no subsidies from the Hong Kong government.

The key is the government allowing MTR to build property around its stations so that it can develop residential and commercial projects. Profits generated from property sales are lucrative given that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. It has been reported that a square foot went for US$4,570 to US$5,050 (S$5,650 to S$6,245) last year.

In 2011, MTR recorded a profit of HK$14.8 billion (S$2.4 billion), of which an estimated 33 per cent was contributed by property development.

Fares are distance-based and currently start from HK$4. Earlier this month, the MTR announced a fare hike of 2.7 per cent that will be implemented in June - the third consecutive year of fare adjustments.

With its increasing ridership, the MTR, like Singapore's MRT, has had to tackle overcrowding. A spokesman said it spends more than HK$4 billion each year to maintain and upgrade its railway assets and station facilities.

A HK$1 billion programme was launched last year to meet passenger demand for improvements.

Under the programme, 1,200 train trips were added each week on its busiest lines. Another 500 staff were added to assist passengers on station platforms.

"This has helped ease crowding and reduce waiting time for passengers," said the spokesman.

The MTR is also able to run its trains at high frequency after upgrading signalling systems on the busy Tsuen Wan, Island and Kwun Tong lines from 1994 to 2000. This allowed trains to be run more closely together.

In Singapore, work is under way to upgrade the signalling system on the older North-South and East-West lines. This will reduce the gap between trains from two minutes to 100 seconds.

The new system will be ready on the North-South Line in 2016, and the East-West Line in 2018.

A Land Transport Authority spokesman said this will increase capacity by 20 per cent.

When it comes to reliability, MTR has its share of bumps as well. A spokesman said there were 169 delays of eight minutes or more on its heavy rail lines last year, down from 216 in 2011.

There were at least two serious disruptions, including one lasting two hours, on its Island Line last October. Thousands of MTR commuters were stranded between Admiralty and Sheung Wan when a ventilation duct cover came loose and blocked the tunnel.

roysim@sph.com.sg