Operators share recipe for reliable rail service

Representatives from 16 cities meet to learn from one another and identify best practices

Ample and timely investment in asset renewal, a structured and disciplined maintenance regimen, and a sound operating and financial model make for successful MRT networks.

These were some of the key findings of rail operators from around the world.

Forty-five representatives of rail operators from 16 cities - members of the Community of Metros (CoMET) - convened in Singapore yesterday for a four-day meeting to share operational experiences, assess how their metros have performed, identify best practices and learn from one another as part of an effort to raise service standards.

This year's meeting is hosted by SMRT Corp.

London Underground managing director Mark Wild said: "When customers have a certain expectation of reliability, it's very difficult for them to take it down (a notch)." He cited the example of when London upgraded the signalling system of a few of its lines, commuters using other lines started clamouring for an upgrade too.

"Electrical assets, rail, sleepers, just like everything else, wear out with use," he said. "We need to develop the skills to actually renew these at the same time as when we are carrying a lot of people.

"That means a lot of investment in technology, integrated testing, making every hour of track access you have count." He added that the short hours available for maintenance each day meant that "we operate like a Formula One pitstop, where every second counts".

He said London Underground ploughs "every pound" of revenue surplus back into the system.

New York City Transit senior director (service and planning) Judy McClain said having multiple parallel tracks allows New York's subway to operate round the clock.

"Many of the lines have three or four tracks. So when we re-route the trains to an adjacent track, some people may have to go the wrong direction for a couple of stops, but we've been doing this since we started," she said, adding that the operator communicates service changes through its website, social media and newspaper advertisements so that commuters can plan their trips better.

Taipei Rapid Transit Corp vice-president Kuo Tsair-ming said being a nationalised entity contributes to its success. Taipei has the world's most reliable system, with one delay for every 800,000 train-km operated last year, versus 133,000km for Singapore and 360,000km for Hong Kong.

"There's nothing particularly special about us," he said. "But being nationalised is like being a tenant who does not have to pay rent.

"The rent, in this case, is a special fund we can draw upon - to supplement our fare revenue - for system upgrades."

Richard Anderson, managing director of Railway and Transport Strategy Centre at London's Imperial College, which administers CoMET, noted that Singapore's performance had improved significantly in recent years.

"You've seen a doubling of reliability since 2011, which is one of the most significant improvements worldwide," he said.

"There's a limited amount of resources, but you have good value for money as fares are relatively low in Singapore."

He said "there's always that balance" between available resources to be reinvested back into the system and fare levels.

SMRT Trains managing director Lee Ling Wee said Singapore's ongoing asset renewal programme was key to raising reliability standards. He added: "We could have done that earlier... It is important that all our asset management and asset renewal be done in a more timely manner."

CoMET rankings are confidential, but The Straits Times understands SMRT ranks below the new and better-performing Asian heavy metros, and on top of the older Western systems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'Operators share recipe for reliable rail service'. Print Edition | Subscribe