How Taipei Metro turned itself around – and the lessons for Singapore's MRT system

How Taipei Metro turned itself around – and the lessons for Singapore's MRT system

It suffered a spate of delays, then became one of the world's most reliable subway systems. Talking Point travelled to Taipei to find out how the system is run.

Singapore has sought Taipei's help to review operations here in improving the MRT system. What lessons can be learnt from how Taipei Metro became one of the world's most reliable subway systems? Talking Point finds out.

TAIPEI: It is twice as reliable as Singapore’s MRT system. Its job retention rate is twice as high as SMRT’s. And it notifies commuters of delays twice as fast as required in Singapore.

These are some of the Taipei Metro’s achievements. And Singapore has sought its help to review operations here in improving the MRT system.

But the Taipei Metro, which opened in 1996, was not always a success story. In 2003, six delays of over an hour had a major impact on commuters and affected its image.

“The public was very angry,” said Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation president B C Yen.

So how did it transform into a metro now hailed as one of the world’s most dependable? By building the right systems and job culture, as Talking Point discovered when it went to Taipei. (Watch the episode here.)

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The Taipei Metro system.

SOPs AND EXPERIENCE

Mr Yen was there in 2003 when the metro’s road to recovery began.

One of the first things the task force he was a part of did to improve reliability was to set up weekly technical meetings that would look at how and why each problem occurred, and how it would be fixed.

These could all be written into standard operating procedures. And there is now a database of more than 7,000 SOP documents that are reviewed annually.

When a fault develops, the staff can follow the SOPs to keep disruptions to a minimum. Mr Yen said: “The majority of problems we encounter (now), we’ve seen before and can fix very quickly.”

TP Taipei Metro 12

It helps that most of the metro’s 5,700 employees have been with the company for 10 years or more. In contrast, the majority of SMRT’s 9,500-plus staff have served five years or less.

Knowing that workers on the ground can make or break a system, the Taipei Metro also holds special training sessions every year.

For the maintenance team who work overnight to keep the tracks safe, this lasts for a week.

“We review incidents over the past year, such as track faults that were overlooked. During this training, we re-emphasise key concepts and improve their techniques,” said their leader, section chief Chiu Chih-Hsiung.

His team have only three hours to do their trackwork. The supervisors must also be aware of the workers’ physical and mental states, such as whether they have issues at home.

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“We try our best to help and allow them to return to form or do even better,” he said, adding that most of the team have worked together for over 10 years, “so they have great rapport and mutual understanding”.

(Read related article: Discipline, experience the secret to Taipei Metro's success)

STRONG SAFETY CULTURE

Still, it takes more than SOPs and experience. In Singapore, investigations into the tunnel flooding at Bishan MRT Station in October found that maintenance workers had falsified inspection records.

And this week, a former SMRT engineer who had worked for the company since 1999, and was in charge of two employees killed on the job in 2016, was jailed for neglecting safety guidelines.

At the Taipei Metro, the safety culture is strong, while some jobs are also categorised as safety-critical items - whereby a secondary inspector is brought in to do another round of inspections to ensure that the task is actually completed.

To prepare workers for every contingency, there are frequent simulation drills: Small drills twice a month, and large drills once or twice a month.

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“Comparatively, the frequency of Taipei Metro drills is quite high. This approach, over time, yields big results,” said operation control centre director Hsu Tai-Ming.

We can resolve breakdowns very quickly, minimise delays, and achieve an on-time performance rate approaching 100 per cent.

In 2009, however, the metro faced a challenge when work to extend a line coincided with a signal system upgrade. Chaos ensued.

Mr Yen explained: “The control systems were different. At first, the communications and electrical systems weren’t integrated well. There were frequent breakdowns, similar to SMRT’s … signalling system problems.”

WATCH: 6 key lessons (4:00)

To appease the public, the Taipei Metro gave fare discounts and put extra staff on standby to take over the automated trains. 

“After a year, the system stabilised and has now become a very stable system,” noted Mr Yen.

More than two million passenger trips a day are now made on its five lines – comprising 117 stations – with fewer than 30 delays exceeding five minutes a year.

It has achieved train journeys averaging one million kilometres between delays (exceeding five minutes), while Singapore crossed the 400,000-km mark only last year, excluding delays caused by the signalling tests.

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HIGH LEVELS OF TRUST AND PRIDE

Achieving best-in-class reliability has created a virtuous circle of employee and citizen pride in the Taipei Metro. Mr Yen calls it a “metro way of life”.

When you say you work at the Taipei Metro, the public would reply, ‘You all do a really good job.’ The worker would feel a sense of accomplishment, and morale would improve.

That is the reason someone like Ms Yu Tan-Ning left her engineering job and took a pay cut to become a driver-cum-conductor – controlling the train departure at each station, monitoring train systems and being a first responder when incidents occur.

“My two kids ... love taking the metro and always try to see what the driver’s doing. So I said, ‘What do you think if Mum applies to be a driver?’ They were really happy and supportive,” said Ms Yu.

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Barely 1 in 20 of those who take the metro’s annual entrance test pass.

She had to undergo 400 hours of “devilishly hard” training. “The failure rate was about one-third to half,” she noted. 

Moreover, only 5 per cent of the 3,000 people who show up for the metro’s annual entrance test pass it in the first place, she added.

The Taipei Metro also upholds high standards when there are delays. Commuters are notified after five minutes, if not sooner, whereas rail operators in Singapore must inform commuters of delays exceeding 10 minutes.

Mr Hsu said: “Five minutes is a standard, but if I already know a situation would cause longer delays, I’d start notifying passengers after three minutes.

“Assuming we provide information and alternative routes appropriately, I’m confident passenger complaints would be kept to a minimum.”

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Commuter trust is concomitantly high. Taipei resident Wan Qi-Wei, who co-founded a Facebook group of Taipei Metro fans, said: “We won’t make a point of checking for delays before we head out. We’re very confident in the system.”

His Facebook group now has over 1,500 members, who often take photos of the problems with the metro, and the improvements, to share online. These posts help to alert metro officials to potential problems before they escalate. Said Mr Wan:

(The metro) is a part of our lives, so we care about it. At the same time, we hope it can help the city to develop.

That sentiment is shared by the 300-plus people who have been inspired to join the Taipei Metro Volunteer Brigade, to help commuters with directions and other issues.

They must pass an interview, and even a three-month internship.

A WINNING COMBINATION

The Taipei Metro is nationalised and is majority-owned by the Taipei City government. In effect, this means the metro boss is Mayor Ko Wen-je - who is also one of Taipei’s most recognisable commuters, as he takes the train to work.

TP Taipei Metro 2 Mayor Ko Wen-je

He told Talking Point that ticket fares have not changed in the past 20-something years.

Advertising and shop rentals can help to cover the metro system’s costs, although it had been losing an average of US$20 million (S$26 million) annually in recent years until it turned a pre-tax profit of US$50 million in 2016.

But Dr Ko said: “If profit is the only criterion … then very quickly, the public transport will break down.”

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Summing up his encounters with people ranging from the commuter to the conductor, Talking Point host Daniel Martin found that they identified with the Taipei Metro.

“The system of SOPs they have in place means that workers have a sense of ownership and responsibility … (for) the role they play,” said Mr Martin.

“They were happy to be working here in many cases, appreciative of the job, (and) looked up to this as a true profession. And because of that, it gave them the sense of wanting to do their absolute best.

“It’s clearly a deep-seated culture that seems to work very well for them.”

And having done it themselves, they told him they are confident that Singapore, too, can solve its MRT woes.

Watch the programme Talking Point here. New episodes every Thursday at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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Source: CNA/dp/yv

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