SINGAPORE: The world's top rail operators are in town this week (Nov 14 to 17) for the Community of Metro Annual Meeting (CoMET). Local operator SMRT and Singapore is hosting the annual forum for the very first time.
The yearly closed-door affair allows members - operators with a ridership of more than 500 million passenger trips a year - to share best practices and assess the standards of their metros.
"I think this is where it comes in very useful for us," said SMRT Train's managing director Lee Ling Wee on the exchange of information at CoMET. "Otherwise we'll be just be doing ... blind, without knowing what are the best practices that are out there and whether we've invested enough in a certain area at the expense of other areas."
He added that the gathering was not "really a competition, it's actually sharing and learning from each other".
For example, representatives from the Taipei Rapid Transit said being nationalised and focusing on preventive maintenance contributes to the organisation's reliability. The Taipei system has been lauded as the most reliable train system in the world, with one delay every 800,000 km travelled.
"To be honest there's nothing really special about the Taipei Metro," said Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation's vice president Kuo Tsair-Ming candidly in Mandarin. "We rent the metro system from the Taiwan government and pay the government rent every year. It keeps the money as a ‘special fund’. That way we don't have to worry about the budget whenever we need to pay for any improvements or upgrades."
Similarly, the London Underground, which has run the oldest metro in the world since 1853, stressed the importance of replacing old tracks, equipment or trains on time and to explain to people why it is necessary.
"When customers get a certain expectation of reliability, it's very difficult for them to take it down,” said managing director Mark Wild. "So, number one, we need to communicate the vision to the people, and number two, you need to develop the skills to actually renew it the same time you're carrying a lot of people."
He added that this meant investing in technology, off-site integration testing, and "making use of every hour of track access that you have".
Participants also toured SMRT's depots to see recent train upgrades. SMRT called exchange of information a "two-way process". The rail operator also shared what it learnt from study visits abroad.
"I think first of all we need to complete all our projects - resignalling, resleepering and renewing the assets," Mr Lee said. "Personally I felt that we could have actually started the renewal effort earlier, because we are coming to the end of a 30 years life cycle."
He added it was important that SMRT's asset management and renewal should be done in a timelier manner going forward.
"I think this is one of the lessons or takeaways I had after visiting the Hong Kong and Taipei MTR," Mr Lee said. "They have a very systematic renewal plan."
According to Imperial College's Railway and Transport Strategy Centre, which facilitates the yearly CoMET meeting, Singapore has seen a "doubling in reliability since 2011". However the challenge to balance fares, resources and investments remain.
"Singapore, of course, is a very modern metro," its managing director Richard Anderson said. "But of course like many metros worldwide it's become, if you'd like, a middle-age metro, and as you get to middle age, you get grey hairs, and the challenge is to make sure there's enough reinvestment, enough attention towards the physical assets."
Mr Anderson added that fares in Singapore are “relatively lower than it is in Hong Kong and Taipei".
"And I think the other thing to remember about Hong Kong is that it has vast amounts of resources as a result of its rail plus property model," he said.
This meant that Hong Kong "had relatively more amount of money than Singapore's had to reinvest in the system continuously" and one of the reasons why reliability is often cited as being higher in Hong Kong.
"In Taipei, perhaps until recently, there's been relatively lower levels of demand relative to Singapore, and the pressure of the system as a result of very high levels of demand in Singapore, of course, can affect capacity," he added.
Mr Anderson also said that looking ahead, rail operators are set to spend even more on train technology, reinvestment, and replacing assets on time.