TAIPEI’S CITY Hall is so proud of its mass rapid transit (MRT) system that it runs a competition every year, asking people to send in poems about the MRT. I can see why. The MRT is clean and comfortable (in addition to chewing gum, the nasty habit of betel chewing nut has been banned). People queue up in a civilised fashion before boarding trains. And, when the doors open, they don’t barge in before passengers can exit.
Signs and announcements are in Chinese and English and all carriages have electronic displays showing which station is coming up next. Every carriage has special seats for old folks, pregnant women or people with disabilities. I’ve never seen fit, young people pretending to be asleep in these seats.
However, the best part about Taipei’s MRT is its frequency. According to Taipei Rapid Transit Corp (TRTC), the company that runs the system, trains arrive at two to four-minute intervals at peak hours. Off-peak, it is four to seven minutes.
In reality, it is much more frequent. I know because I’ve timed it. At peak hours, trains come as often as every minute. As for off-peak hours? Well, I’ve never had to wait more than three or four minutes. As a result, even during the morning rush hour, the trains are never as packed as they are in Singapore.
TRTC has won praise not just locally but internationally. It has been ranked No 1 for reliability for four straight years (2004 to 2007), according to the Nova/CoMET International Railway Benchmarking Group (of which Singapore’s SMRT Corp is also part).
All this got me wondering just how TRTC is able to deliver such a world-class MRT service. Perhaps, it doesn’t have to transport as many people as in the crowded Lion City? Perhaps, it’s government-owned and isn’t under pressure to make as much money as possible and can run more trains?
So, I pulled up some numbers (see table). And the broad conclusion is that Taipei proves it is possible to offer a high-quality, high-frequency and affordable MRT service without losing money. It also suggests that certain services, such as public transport, tend to function optimally as natural monopolies and ought not to be owned by companies that seek to maximise profits.
Let’s look first at the one common element between the two: the cost of taking a train. Average ticket prices in Singapore and Taipei are about $1. This is pretty low by international standards, as anyone who has had the misfortune to take the London Underground knows.
Singapore and Taipei are also pretty dense cities, but the latter packs more folks (5.5 million of them) into a smaller area (272 sq km). In comparison, Singapore is home to 4.6 million residents spread over some 692 sq km.
As such, in terms of coverage, Singapore’s network of five MRT lines is more extensive, totalling 109.4km, versus TRTC’s 74.4km network. However, TRTC has more stations on its smaller network, which means less distance between stations and greater convenience for commuters.
MORE TRAIN RUNS IN TAIPEI
Just how many people take the MRT each day? In 2007, Singapore’s MRT moved an average of 1.56 million people a day. That’s just over a third more than what TRTC transported last year. So yes, TRTC’s network is smaller and it moves fewer people, which is one reason it feels less crowded.
However, what is illuminating is the difference in frequency. Last year, TRTC made an average of 2,171 train runs a day. SMRT clocked in at just over 1,000 a day for its fiscal year ended March 2008. This is not strictly an apples with apples comparison. SMRT’s system is older, has heavier loads and travels further than TRTC’s — factors which play a role in how often trains can be run. The comparison also doesn’t include data from SBS Transit, which runs the North- East Line. But, as SMRT accounts for more than four fifths of total MRT ridership, it is fairly representative of the whole picture.
Since February this year, SMRT has added about 900 extra train trips each week. According to the company, on average, its train frequency during peak hours is between two and five minutes. During off-peak hours, it is now between 3.5 and seven minutes. Given the existing signalling system and infrastructure, its average peak-hour frequency puts it among the top 20% of the world’s major metro operators, SMRT adds.
SMRT MORE PROFITABLE
Still, it’s safe to assume that its bumped-up frequency continues to lag TRTC’s. And this, to an extent, is reflected in SMRT’s bottomline, which is much heftier than TRTC’s. In FY2008, SMRT’s rail operations saw revenue of $436.9 million. Earnings before interest and tax was $129.3 million. In comparison, TRTC saw approximately $415 million in fare revenue in 2007 and just $41.3 million in pre-tax profit.
TRTC is 73.75% owned by the Taipei City Government. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications owns a further 17.14% while the Taipei County Government owns 8.75%. Clearly, public-listed SMRT’s returns on its rail operations are far better for its shareholders than TRTC’s. However, TRTC — which has been profitable every year except its first two — is better for its commuters, who have been inspired to pen a poem or two in praise of their well-regarded metro.
Sunita Sue Leng, previously an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, is now based in Taipei and writes on Greater China issues