TAIPEI: Having experienced employees and discipline in maintenance operation procedures are some of the reasons for Taipei Metro's success, according to officials who work on the subway system.
Hailed as one of the most reliable subway systems in the world, the metro has won praise from Singapore's Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who said last Tuesday (Nov 7) that Singapore transport operator SMRT had invited a team of experts from Taipei Metro to conduct a review on its own operations.
Led by its vice president, a group of Taipei Metro experts will look into SMRT's operations and help flush out problems that have recently led to a series of incidents on Singapore's rail system.
These include a train collision at Joo Koon MRT station on Wednesday in which 36 people were injured, as well as a tunnel flooding incident last month that caused massive service disruption.
With 117 stations, Taiwan’s mass rapid transit system criss-crosses cities including Taipei, New Taipei and Taoyuan, transporting more than two million people every day.
It has a punctuality rate of close to 100 per cent, reporting fewer than 30 delays exceeding five minutes a year.
“We always plan ahead of all the maintenance operation procedures for every system, and execute thoroughly in order to ensure the system can operate smoothly, ” said B C Yen, president of Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation.
This requires proper training for maintenance staff, as well as strict controls on system parts thorough execution of construction works and material supplies and qualities in order to maintain the system’s stability, he added.
The metro system has nearly 2,000 workers in charge of maintenance alone. It usually takes about an average of two minutes to resolve problems that occur (except for major issues).
Operations Control Centre deputy manager Juan Szu-kang said the transport operator has also developed more than 100 standard operating procedures to handle all types of incidents.
Normally when a problem occurs, the affected station will immediately alert the operations control centre. The centre will then instruct station staff on how to fix the problem, and the public will be informed within five minutes should the problem lead to delays.
However in the case of a train being stuck due to technical issues, the centre will immediately instruct the station to open a single lane for the train to operate in both directions.
At the same time, buses will be dispatched to transport passengers, said Mr Juan.
There are also specific procedures for dealing with other issues including if a passenger jumps onto the railway, he added.
"EVERYBODY HERE IS VERY EXPERIENCED": OFFICIAL
Employees are able to respond so quickly to incidents because they are experienced, said Mr Yen.
Many have been at the company for a long time, and the staff turnover rate is low, at 3 per cent. The Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation president himself has been at Taipei Metro for 19 years.
“After working 10 to 20 years, everyone here is very experienced," said Mr Yen. "So whenever there’s an incident, they immediately know how to handle and respond."
"If you don’t have this kind of experience, then you don’t know how to handle it."
Mr Juan, 47, is also a veteran of 22 years. He said he still remembers what his boss said to him on his first day of work.
“He said you’re very lucky to work here, because rarely is there a job that allows you to serve more than one million passengers a day," said Mr Juan. "This has always been the conviction we try to pass on. We’re very proud and fortunate to work here."
And it’s this kind of corporate culture that has shaped Taipei Metro, which prides itself on discipline and dedication.
“Now we still have weekly meetings with top executives chaired by vice presidents and sometimes by myself," said Mr Yen. "We discuss how incidents happened, how to overcome them, can they be prevented. When you do such reviews on a weekly basis, it becomes a habit."
CUSTOMER SATISFACTION LEVELS HIT 95%
Surveys show customer satisfaction levels are high - more than 95 per cent - and ridership on Taipei Metro has nearly doubled in the past eight years.
“It’s very clean and you don’t have to wait very long for a train to arrive,” one passenger told Channel NewsAsia.
“Most people leave priority seats to those in need. So we always have seats when we board the train,” said a senior citizen.
“It’s very convenient for babies on carts. And the staff is helpful. I like it a lot,’ said a mother with a baby.
But Taipei Metro paid a heavy price for its success today.
It experienced its worst-ever flooding in 2001, when Typhoon Nar hit the island.
In just three days, the typhoon showered a year’s worth of rainfall on Taiwan, flooding 16 underground stations.
This cost Taipei Metro US$76 million in damage and it took three months before the system resumed full operations. However the incident turned out to be a valuable lesson, according to the transport operator.
The incident led to improvements on flood control measures according to Mr Yen.
“We since widened the pump width to speed up the draining of flood water," said Mr Yen.
"We also relocated the pump’s control boards to higher grounds. We installed water insulation boards at all the places where the flood water could seep through to prevent flooding,” he added.
The metro system has not experienced any major flooding since those measures were taken, and is now sharing its experience with transport operators in China, Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia.
But looking forward, Taipei Metro is not without its challenges. More than 90 per cent owned by the government, the metro system has been losing an average of US$20 million a year.
“Taiwan’s political environment is more complicated," said Mr Yen. "It’s very hard to raise ticket prices.
"While costs like maintenance, personnel are rising, we can’t raise ticket prices."
So Taipei Metro is tapping on other commercial means like subway ads and station space rental to increase income.
Last year, it managed to make US$50 million in pre-tax profit, thanks to these additional proceeds.
It is now in the process of renewing its system, hoping that by keeping the train safe and reliable, it will attract more passengers and boost revenue.