Tuesday 27 October 2015

MTR v MRT: Hong Kong rail's 'always improving' ethos

Looking at the big picture of what makes MTR work may offer lessons for Singapore's MRT
By Li Xueying, Hong Kong Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

Like a panoramic painting, Hong Kong's entire mass transit railway (MTR) network is represented electronically across a sprawling wall.

Red dots move along various lines, showing where its trains are at that moment. Panels beam scenes of commuters streaming in and out at stations. A clock suddenly lights up with red digits. There is a delay on one of the tracks. The 30 or so "traffic controllers" in the room stop work on their computers and watch. It ticks off - 15, 16, 17. By the 20th second, it fades to black. The train is moving again. Everyone relaxes.

The situation last Monday afternoon sorted itself out quickly. But here at the Super Operations Control Centre (OCC), the central nervous system of the MTR network, no one takes chances.

Completed two years ago, the OCC is crucial for coordinating speedy responses when crises erupt, says Dr Jacob Kam, MTR Corporation's (MTRC) director of operations. For instance, incoming traffic from other lines will be held at bay and interchange stations alerted. If needed, coaches are activated to bus stranded commuters.

Last year was a busy one for the OCC. There were 12 "major disruptions", the highest since comparative data was collected in 2012. These are defined as delays lasting more than 30 minutes and within the control of the MTR (this excludes weather or passenger factors). Still, Hong Kong's rail system remains one of the most reliable in the world - "the best in class", as Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan put it in his blog three weeks ago when exhorting local operators to "close the gap".

Last year, the MTR experienced 273 delays of eight minutes or more, out of a total of 1.9 billion trips. It has an "on-time" rate of 99.9 per cent, which means that only in one out of 1,000 trips do passengers experience a delay of at least five minutes. This is benchmarked against a demanding schedule. Trains arrive every two minutes during peak hours, and three to six minutes at other times.

So what accounts for the purring performance of the network first built 36 years ago, ahead of Singapore's by nine years?

In his blog, Mr Khaw spoke of a "consensus view" - that Singapore has "underinvested in rail maintenance, and our engineering capabilities in this area are still lacking".

This may be true. The MTRC spent over HK$6 billion (S$1 billion) - 37 per cent of its rail revenue - last year on maintenance, renewals and service improvements. Half goes to daily cleaning and inspection works; the other half to capital expenditure, such as replacing the train door guides to prevent foreign objects from jamming there.

By contrast, SMRT spent $121.9 million on repairs and maintenance - 19 per cent of its rail revenue. The operator did not respond to queries on what this covers. It excludes maintenance spending by the Land Transport Authority.

But interviews with Dr Kam and transport experts in Hong Kong and Singapore suggest that there are also broader factors at play, which ensure that incentives are aligned. One is the industry model. The MTRC designs, builds, operates and maintains the entire system here. This is unlike Singapore, where the state pays for and owns infrastructural assets.

In Hong Kong, being in charge of the whole hog helps prevent a culture of silos and results in holistic planning, including in pre-emptive maintenance. The MTRC, in fact, plans 50 years ahead, looking at likely needs in the coming decades, says Dr Kam. "For example, if we know that we have to refurbish the trains in 10 years, we will start looking at the issue now, testing different types of designs."

However, the most important factor is the MTRC's corporate set-up and culture. Dr Kam speaks proudly of a "continuously improving ethos" - to "become better than today". But what underpins this? It is not just a sense of social responsibility. MTRC is not just a public transport operator but also a profitable public-listed conglomerate.

Rather counter-intuitively, it dabbles in a wide range of non-rail businesses - from developing malls to monetising its Octopus card for uses as varied as security access at condominiums.

Though the government is the major shareholder, owning 76 per cent of it, the management is given a free hand to run the show, says Dr Hung Wing Tat of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

In fact, MTRC is so adept at making money, it was able to turn a government penalty - if there are any major delays, it has to set aside funds to compensate passengers - into a promotional discount that nudges people to take more trips.

One might assume that all this money-making fervour distracts the MTRC from its less profitable rail operations. This, in fact, has been a key criticism of the SMRT, when it was accused of paying too much attention to its retail business.

But it is a virtuous circle in the MTRC. The rail-plus-property model - the government grants it lucrative land development rights above and around train stations in return for building new lines - means it is incentivised to keep rail standards and ridership numbers up, in order to make money off its property.

So, on the one hand, the MTRC is willing to build ahead of demand, as the development that springs up around the stations makes it worth its while. Most crucially, it also understands that it needs to spend in order to make money.

Besides the annual HK$6 billion maintenance budget, it also invests in major outlays, such as HK$6 billion on 93 new trains to replace first-generation trains, and HK$3.3 billion to change the signalling systems.

On how it resists pressures from shareholders to keep expenditures low, Dr Kam wryly says: "Yes, they are also confused. They ask for higher dividends - and lower fares."

But, he adds: "We don't know how to stop, to want to keep doing better... If there is a problem, we don't want it to happen more than once."

So, for instance, among the 12 major delays it experienced last year, four were caused by faulty insulators for overhead lines. The MTRC reacted by putting in place a new quality assurance process for all future procurement.

"It is costly but, in the long run, it is better this way," says Dr Kam.

For all the bouquets, the MTRC has its challenges. Its network is running at capacity because of a higher than projected growth in ridership, acknowledges Dr Kam. This means that there are bottlenecks until new lines are up and running in five years.

Project delays and budget overruns - which forced out its former chief executive earlier this year - exacerbate the problem. Dr William Lam of PolyU attributes these to "political pressures" - legislators holding up the funding.

Among patrons, there is simmering unhappiness over fare hikes. Most recent was a debacle over its ban on oversized musical instruments on trains.

If there is one thing Singapore has going for it, it would be the overwhelming political will to resolve its rail woes.

So how will it learn from Hong Kong? The SMRT did not respond to questions on this. But what is clear is that any solutions adopted cannot be piecemeal, but must look at the big picture of what makes the MTR work.


Here is how Hong Kong and Singapore's rail networks stack up against each other. Hong Kong has one rail operator, MTRC, while Singapore has two.

SMRT runs the North-South, East-West and Circle lines, and SBS Transit runs the North East and Downtown lines.


Total route length: 221km

Domestic passenger trips a year: 1.55 billion

Fare revenue: HK$11.3 billion

No. of major delays over 30 min: 5 (January to June 2015), 12 (2014), 4 (2013), and 8 (2012)

Distance travelled before delay of over 5 min: 300,000km

On-time rate (within 5 min of schedule): 99.9 per cent

Amount spent on maintenance, renewals and service improvements: over HK$6 billion (S$1 billion, 37 per cent of revenue)


Total route length: 129.8km

Passenger trips a year: 730.6 million

Fare revenue: $644.2 million

No. of major delays over 30 min: 7(2014), 5 (2013), 6 (2012) and 10 (2011)

Distance travelled before delay of over 5 min: 137,000km

Train arrival punctuality (within 2 min of schedule, at least 96 per cent weekly): 87.5 per cent for North-South and East-West lines (affected by speed restrictions due to sleeper replacement works)

Amount spent on repair and maintenance: $121.9 million (18.6 per cent of revenue)

SBS Transit

Total route length: 24km

Passenger trips a year: 575,000

No. of major delays over 30 min: 5 (2014), 3 (2013), 2 (2012), 1 (2011)

• Footnote: Figures for MTR and SBS are for 2014, while those for SMRT are for its FY 2015

Sources: MTRC, SMRT 2015 annual report, SBS 2014 annual report, LTA

Dubbed 'the best in class': 6 things about Hong Kong's rail system MTR. str.sg/ZbQn
Posted by The Straits Times on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Repair crews at the heart of MTR's success
By Li Xueying, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

It is 3am on a Saturday, and Diamond Hill MTR station is devoid of its usual commuters. Instead, a team of 15 nestled within its dark tunnel is toiling to replace a 46m piece of rail.

For a system that is among the world's most modern, the work is surprisingly manual and dirty - they use levers to crank up clips that hold down sections of the old rail and insert a new one, before melting a concoction of iron oxide and aluminium to weld them together. Manager Isa Tang checks her watch. The team is on schedule. It has to be. It must pack up by 5am, so trains can begin running by 6am.

Repair crews like this are the gems of the MTR, their work key to the rail system running like clockwork. The operator has a maintenance force of 4,500, plus another 1,300 outsourced staff. Every three days, they walk the 221km of track. Every two weeks, they ride a vehicle that uses ultrasonic techniques to check for defects not visible to the human eye.

This is among the most frequent in the world, says MTR's general manager for infrastructure maintenance Terry Wong. The vigilance is part of the MTR's DNA.

For instance, the rail replacement on Saturday could have been delayed. The threshold for its wear is 10mm. But the firm is replacing it now when it is down to 9mm. By 8mm, it had begun planning for it. "We aim to fix problems before they need fixing," says Mr Wong.

Each year, the operator spends more than HK$6 billion (S$1 billion) on maintenance and upgrades. SMRT spent $121.9 million in the 2015 financial year on "repair and maintenance", according to its annual report.

Another key to the MTR's success is its ability to attract engineering talent. Like in Singapore, engineering is not the most glamourous subject of choice, says Mr Alex Lo, 36, supervisor of the team that early Saturday morning.

"Usually, finance and business are more popular," says the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology graduate, one of 430 maintenance engineers. "But working here, I feel like I'm serving society because the trains are such an important part of our lives."

The MTR Corporation (MTRC) maintains close links with local universities which offer rail engineering courses - which Singapore's universities do not offer. Hong Kong's proximity to China is also a boon, with mainlanders making up two-thirds of its researchers working on the latest technology, says transport expert Hung Wing Tat.

Where Hong Kong has it tougher than Singapore is in the supply of less skilled workers - Hong Kong is governed by strict labour importation laws.

Saturday's maintenance crew, many of whom graduated from vocational training institutes, earn salaries of HK$10,000 to HK$20,000.

As the clock ticks away, they pick up their pace. When they are done, they will gather at Kowloon Bay station for a debrief - and then catch the first train home.

MRT maintenance may not be 'sexy', but it is critical to keep rail network humming: Minister Khaw
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2015

Maintenance is "critical work" that keeps the rail network going, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan wrote in a blog post yesterday.

The missive, titled Maintenance Isn't Sexy, spelt out the work done by maintenance staff at night after train services end. "They do a lot in those 3.5 hours," he said, explaining how checks are carried out on the almost 200 trains to be put in service the next morning and how any defective track components, such as rails, power supply and electrical cables, are changed.

The entire track system, tunnels and viaducts are also checked once every four to seven days.

"Maintenance also involves pre-planned servicing and testing of equipment that is taken out of service temporarily, and major equipment or system overhauls," he said, adding that this is usually done in depot workshops or by system suppliers or manufacturers.

He wrote: "No one appreciates it until something goes wrong. Sexy or not, maintenance is the most valuable work we need to do well, to keep a complex system humming.

"It is critical work because failure to spot and correct any telltale sign of equipment wear and tear can result in a major train service disruption." His comments come in the wake of the rail failure on July 7 that crippled the North-South and East-West lines, affecting more than 400,000 passengers. SMRT was fined a record $5.4 million for the incident, which arose because of inadequate maintenance.

In his post, Mr Khaw said that more manpower will be needed for the rail industry. "As our rail network grows, and we run more trains and trips, we need many more engineers and technical staff to get all this maintenance done properly. We are still short of skilled staff."

MRT station staff to forge 'kampung spirit' to respond quickly in breakdowns and crises
But no recovery plan is enough in cases of very severe disruptions, says Khaw
By Danson Cheong, The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

No recovery plan, however comprehensive, can adequately deal with the chaos that immediately follows a very severe train disruption - the only solution is preventing such disruptions in the first place.

Having said that, service staff in train stations could be roped in to help deal with the fall-out in the critical first hour of less severe incidents, wrote Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan yesterday in his blog. "Even if it is simply to help guide the commuters to the right bus stop or to the right queue, it will be a great help to reduce confusion amongst commuters," he wrote.

His comments come in the wake of an unprecedented rail failure on July 7 that crippled the North-South and East-West lines, affecting more than 400,000 passengers. Operator SMRT was fined a record $5.4 million for the incident, which arose because of inadequate maintenance.

Since December 2011, there have been at least 35 and 22 major disruptions on the MRT and LRT networks, respectively.

Mr Khaw pointed out that no amount of service recovery could deal with a disruption on the scale of the July incident - so prevention is the only way. "Assuming train intervals of 2.5 minutes, we will need at least 24 double-decker buses every five minutes," he wrote.

But he added that "less severe" disruptions would continue to happen in future, and while contingency plans would be put in place, "mobilised resources" would need time to get to the affected stations.

Citing the recent crash-landing emergency exercise at Changi Airport, Mr Khaw said he observed how various stakeholders at the airport worked together as one family.

"This is the kampung spirit that we must inculcate in every MRT station," said Mr Khaw, adding that Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo had suggested involving shopkeepers working in the station, so they can play a part in contingency plans.

"Such 'family-ness' will be important not just when there is a technical breakdown, but (will be) even more critical if there is a terrorist- led sabotage to our rail system," he said. He added that he has asked the Land Transport Authority and transport operators to consider the suggestion.

Mrs Teo told The Sunday Times that she had observed many commuters shopping at shops near the stations before their bus and train journeys. "It's quite natural for them to interact with service staff. If these service staff also know what local measures are being taken, they can help advise the commuters, who can in turn advise other commuters," she said.

Ms Karen Tan, 30, who works at a nail parlour at Tampines MRT station, does not mind getting involved. She said she was herself affected by a train disruption earlier this year and had to figure out how to get home on her own.

"If we can all help each other, that would be so much better," she said.

'Rat catchers' needed to ease rail woes: Khaw
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2015

"Rat catchers", or sharp-eyed engineers who can spot potential problems, can play a part in easing Singapore's rail woes, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan suggested yesterday following yet another train disruption.

Referring to a disruption of nearly two hours on the North-East Line yesterday, he wrote in a blog post: "Such breakdowns tarnish our reputation, and we are re-doubling our efforts to improve train reliability. Singaporeans deserve better."

In the post, Mr Khaw shared an e-mail he had received from Mr Tan Gee Paw, chairman of national water agency PUB, who is advising him on rail transformation.

In the e-mail, Mr Tan wrote that to deal with breakdowns, the agencies involved have to "go beyond codes of practice and do preventive risk analysis on the entire system". Third-party consultants or external engineers should not be the only solution, he said. "They will use the same codes of practice and design practices and often conclude the system is by and large intact and what happened was unfortunate and can easily be rectified."

"We need to engage street-smart, sharp-eyed practising engineers in systems engineering for rails alongside the third-party consultant," Mr Tan added, dubbing these engineers "rat catchers". "They are the ones who will walk through the system and spot the risky parts of the system, beyond the codes of practice and alert us on what modifications must be made urgently," he said.

Mr Tan said he speaks from experience. In the 1980s, PUB's first refuse incineration plant suffered a total shutdown after a rat tried to jump across two bus bars, a kind of electrical conductor, and short-circuited the entire plant. "The bus bars were spaced according to standards, but no one was sharp-eyed enough to think a rat would jump across."

As the rail system ages, more "rats" will appear, he said. "Unless we can get this done quickly, pouring massive engineering manpower to beef up maintenance will never get us out of this mess. No amount of good maintenance can make up for rats running around."

Noting that Mr Tan's experience showed through in the e-mail, Mr Khaw said: "With his assistance, we will tackle this problem of rail reliability."

Of rail breakdowns and the right words
By S. Kumar, Published The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2015

Since Mr Khaw Boon Wan took over the Transport portfolio, MRT breakdowns have not gone away. They still happen but on a smaller scale than before, with the latest taking place last Monday during the morning rush hours.

But somehow, the angst that greets each breakdown seems to have moderated. The previous mood of resignation is slowly giving way to hope.

Why this transformation? As a practitioner of crisis communication, I sense this hope emanates from the utterances and writings of the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure. He gives people a sense that the troublesome railway system is finally in the hands of someone determined to get to the bottom of the mess.

A good crisis manager defines the problem, addresses emotions, understands and shares concerns, and demonstrates a commitment to act. The undergirding principle is to communicate the truth clearly and concisely.

Since his appointment as Transport Minister, Mr Khaw has made several statements on the problems facing the rail system and from day one, he zeroed in on the engineering quagmires. His communication style, whether in person or through blogs, includes sound bites that are appropriate and not over the top. His blog posts and those on Facebook are prompt and effective, and show an eagerness to resolve the rail problems. In his first 10 days in office, he had blogged some six times on transport issues. "Singapore deserves better," he noted on Facebook last Monday after the two-hour train breakdown on the North East Line, a simple statement that conveyed empathy. A trip-up during the testing of a new train hit some 41,000 commuters, including students heading for their year-end exams.

In appointing Mr Tan Gee Paw as his Rail Transformation Adviser, he made clear a good team will be at the core of any solution. The challenges of assembling this team will be daunting though. Engineering capabilities cannot be assembled overnight. Truth be told, there is a dearth of good engineers locally.

As for the Ministry of Transport, Land Transport Authority and SMRT, they must work together and not in silos. The engineering and risk analysis in these organisations need to be improved too.

From a communications standpoint, a coordinated roll-out will help allay public uncertainty. Key officials must be trained to deal with the issues and not roll out standard motherhood statements.

But the challenge ahead is daunting, not only from an operational point of view but also the crisis mode. To be sure, the breakdowns will continue until the "rat catchers" are able to troubleshoot and de-bug theentire system. Management of commuter expectations will be key. The sincerity and humility of the officials on the ground willbe watched.

The MRT system may be some ways from finding a happy equilibrium. The right messages have emerged but the jury is still out on what lies ahead.

The writer is a managing partner in a consultancy firm.

Rail repair, maintenance: SMRT replies

We refer to the letters by Dr Ho Ting Fei ("S'pore must learn from Hong Kong's rail operator") and Mr Aaron Ang Chin Guan ("People make all the difference"; both published on Wednesday).

SMRT Group's rail maintenance-related expenditure accounted for 41 per cent to 45 per cent of its rail revenue over the last four quarters (Oct 1, 2014 to Sept 30, 2015).

In other words, almost half of every dollar we collect for rail revenue goes to rail maintenance-related expenditure. This refers to rail maintenance staff costs, depreciation of rail assets and other rail maintenance-related operating expenses.

To strengthen our repair and maintenance capability, we have also substantially reinforced our engineering workforce.

Over the last three years, SMRT has grown the number of rail maintenance staff by nearly a quarter (23 per cent). For executive rail engineers alone, the numbers have grown by 70 per cent.

By 2018, SMRT aims to have more than 400 engineers (a 127 per cent increase from 2011) and more than 2,600 technicians (a 50 per cent jump from 2011).

This will complement the enlarged train fleet and help keep our rail lines running smoothly.

SMRT is fully committed to strengthening the level of service and rail reliability, and to meeting the network's higher capacity needs and operational requirements.

Lee Ling Wee
Managing Director SMRT Trains
ST Forum, 30 Oct 2015

* Hong Kong train network suffers its worst ever delay – a six-hour signal failure
Signalling glitch cripples Hong Kong train services
By Claire Huang, Hong Kong Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2018

HONG KONG - The city’s reliable train network was brought to its knees on Tuesday (Oct 16) morning after an “unprecedented” signalling glitch hit four key arteries, disrupting the routines of tens of thousands of commuters.

Train services slowed to a crawl for about six hours after the four main lines - Island, Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan and Tseung Kwan O - were severely disrupted. Normal train services resumed by about noon.

The rail operator, MTR Corporation, on Tuesday said it would set up an investigation committee and rope in global experts to find the exact cause of the glitch. It added that the investigation will take two months.

Addressing the media, Mr Jacob Kam, MTR’s managing director of operations and mainland business, described the incident as “rare and unprecedented”.

He said the operator had never encountered a problem of a similar nature since the signalling system was put in place in the 1990s and that “there was no mention of such a situation in our design and maintenance manuals”.

“The uniqueness about this incident is that we believe a single failure should not affect more than just a sector in a line and sometimes it might affect the whole line but it has never affected more than one line, that’s why it’s so unique today and we need more time. We’re calling in experts from around the world to help us identify the real cause,” Mr Kam said.

The rail operator said it was also checking if Monday (Oct 15) night’s system update of the Tsuen Wan line had caused the signalling issues across the four affected lines.

The South China Morning Post, quoting an MTR source, said the rail operator was looking into whether a power supply issue at its control centre in Tsing Yi led to the massive disruption.

“Staff are checking if the power supply at Tsing Yi went wrong, causing a failure of the computer system that manages the scheduling of trains,” the source was quoted as saying.

Delays on the MTR services, which form the backbone of the city’s public transport, unleashed travel chaos during rush hour in the financial hub, with trains jam-packed and platforms overcrowded with stranded commuters.

Many were forced to turn to alternative public transport and there were snaking queues at bus stations and taxi stands.

Ms Priscilla Quek, 27, was trying to get to Central from Wan Chai station but ended up waiting for the tram instead.

“I also checked Uber but it was really expensive, about five times the normal cost,” she added.

The MTR delays created a knock-on effect on road traffic, clogging roads and causing traffic accidents, local media reported.

The rail operator apologised for the inconvenience.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan on Tuesday said the government, MTR’s biggest shareholder, would follow up on the “special” situation and decide if the train operator would face tougher penalties for the crippling service delay.

Under an agreement between MTR and the Hong Kong government, the operator needs to pay a fine if there are delays of more than 31 minutes.

A 10-hour service disruption on the Kwun Tong line last year, which was also the result of a signalling fault, led to a HK$2 million (S$350,500) penalty, reported Bloomberg.

MTR Corp, whose trains carry about 5.8 million passengers on a weekday, said a team noticed the signalling failure at about 5.30am on Tuesday and issued a red alert at 6.20am to inform relevant departments and other public transport providers about the expected disruption.

Commenting on the situation, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said MTR bosses had to make sure the service they provided was reliable and met the needs of the people.

She called on employers to be “understanding” towards staff who reported for work late because of the MTR delays.

Shares of MTR fell 0.52 per cent to HK$38.60 by the end of the trading session.

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