Taiwan: Gracious commuters, crowd managers keep metro ticking

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.

Riding on Taipei's metro is a lot like riding on Singapore's MRT. Trains are of similar capacity, and are nearly as frequent, with waiting times of about just over two minutes.

It also gets as crowded during peak hours at busy stations.

But the Taipei rush-hour experience is a gentler one, marked by the gracious behaviour of commuters. This is what makes the Taipei metro tick.

Guided by lines drawn at platforms, commuters form neat queues to board the trains at all times of the day.

On escalators, everyone keeps to the right so the left side is clear for those in a hurry.

This did not happen overnight.

Mr Tan Gwa-guang, president of metro operator Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC), said that developing this etiquette was a long process that began when Taipei's first rail line opened in 1996.

Commuters were constantly reminded to queue and, over time, more people did.

"Commuters also realised that by queueing, they could get on the trains faster. It came to a point where if one did not queue properly, he would look very out of place," said Mr Tan.

Like Hong Kong's MTR, the TRTC has staff managing crowds on the platform, to make sure trains leave without delay.

They do not just include contract staff from security firms, but also volunteers.

At busy stations such as Taipei Main, located at the heart of the city where the regional and high-speed rail lines converge, there is one person deployed at each train door.

Said Mr Tan: "We do not really receive complaints about how crowded it is because the staff on the platforms help to ensure human traffic is smooth."

Complaints typically are about the attitude of service staff and faulty equipment, he added.

Unlike Singapore's rail system, which is partly publicly funded and privately operated, the Taipei system is nationalised.

The Taipei city government leases the metro network to the TRTC, which is almost entirely state-owned.

Every year, the TRTC pays the government a rental fee based on equipment replacement costs and a percentage of the revenue and profit.

It does not receive any government subsidy.

The rental fee goes into a fund which is used to replace assets in the metro system.

The TRTC, which had paid an accumulated NT$30.4 billion (S$1.27 billion) by last year, reported after-tax profits of NT$790 million in 2011.

About 86 per cent of revenue came from fares; other sources of income include advertising.

Metro fares, which are distance-based and start from NT$20, have not increased since the system began operating.

Mr Tan admits that the TRTC is facing pressure from rising costs.

But it copes by closely controlling costs such as manpower and growing its revenue.

The key is reliability, he said, so commuters continue using the rail system, which also boosts store sales and advertising.

According to the TRTC, there were 36 incidents that led to delays of more than five minutes last year, down from 38 in 2011.

In contrast, there were 396 incidents with delays of more than five minutes on the MRT network last year, up from 393 in 2011.

Mr Tan attributes this to the TRTC's focus on maintenance.

Analysts said the disparity in the number of delays is partly because the Taipei metro is younger than Singapore's, which started in 1987. It also carries fewer passengers.