WITH on-time performance consistently hitting 99.9%, MTR's Hong Kong rail operations are, for many, the benchmark that other urban networks are striving to replicate.
Of course this achievement is no accident. Reliable rolling stock and a train control system that can deliver headways as low as 2 minutes are essential. But so is the layout of stations, which must allow the effective passage of around 5.3 million passengers every day all while providing a comfortable travel experience.
Mr Andrew Mead, MTR's chief architect, moved to Hong Kong from Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) in early 2013, and he says the difference between the systems was immediately apparent.
Mead says the stations in Hong Kong are set up to handle a greater number of passengers who arrive and depart on longer trains. Singapore's metro uses six-car trains, while Hong Kong's network deploys seven-car trains on the West Rail Line and eight-car trains on the Island, Kwun Tong, Tung Chung and Tseung Kwan O lines, with 12-car trains used on the East Rail Line. The Ma On Shan and Disneyland Resort branch lines both use four-car trains. The network is used by 5.3 million passengers on an average weekday, with the heavily-used urban lines like the Tsuen Wan Line carrying an average of 52,000 passengers per hour per direction during peak times.
"Near-capacity operations place a great deal of pressure on the architecture," Mead says. "However, a lot of this can be managed by introducing measures that encourage efficient passenger flow. When seas of people all leave a train at the same time, managing their movements is critical so that when the next train arrives these people can also leave the train and the platform without any major disruption."
MTR's approach to identifying solutions that promote the efficient use of its station spaces relies very much on its own in-house expertise. Indeed, Mead says that as an integrated rail operator that builds and operates its own lines, MTR is in a strong position to consult data sources from across the organisation to deliver the desired level of service.
Mr Anthony Wong, architectural manager - design at MTR, says that various parameters are considered when designing a station space all of which are carefully considered and analysed by MTR staff. He believes this approach is more beneficial than assigning a consultant to carry out these studies.
"One example of the parameters we consider is passenger walking speed, where we identify the expected walking speed within a station from reading passenger behaviour," Wong says.
"It is unlikely that any consultant will measure this and when they do they will use a general measurement proposed in a software development programme. However, experience has taught us that people walk differently in Hong Kong compared with the way they walk in Britain or any other country. This understanding helps us to make our stations more efficient."
Other parameters considered include the use and location of ticket gates, ticket machines and customer service kiosks. Wong says use of these facilities is under constant review. They are also easily adjustable to make better use of the available space.
Indeed with land at such a premium in Hong Kong's densely-populated neighbourhoods, it's essential that no area is wasted. Wong says that passenger proposals to introduce more communal areas in stations were rejected on these grounds, and because of concerns that it may encourage people to linger in stations.
MTR's underlying design philosophy which emphasises reliability, availability, maintainability and safety (Rams) and covers every facet in its organisation - from rolling stock to escalators in stations - is intended to meet its strict performance targets and deliver the level of service that passengers expect.
Wong says this was adapted for station design to also emphasise financial viability, accessibility and maintainability. This approach is evident in the new stations under development as part of MTR's network expansion programme which encompasses five major projects in Kowloon and Hong Kong island.
Mead says that while it is important to retain MTR's network identity, which was established 35 years ago when the first line opened, in the latest network expansion, he believes this is an opportunity to innovate.
For instance, a pallet of colours which complement the core colour scheme is in use at certain stations to make the area more attractive. "New in-house developed ticket machines, which incorporate the latest in touch-screen technology, are another integral feature of the new stations," Mead says.
However, he adds that it is important not to stray too far from the norm in these designs.
"We can be creative in certain areas, but when it comes to items like touchpoints and customer service centres it is important to standardise these installations so as not to confuse passengers and to promote a sense of familiarity," Mead says.
Public consultations are playing an important role in the design and make-up of MTR's new stations. Mead says that with construction potentially causing major disruption to a community, it is important to get residents onside with the project early so they buy into the benefits of having a permanent metro station in their neighbourhood and fast connections to the rest of the region.
Encouraging public participation in the design and make-up of the station is one way of achieving this. For example, a huge mural consisting of photographs submitted by local residents will be the centrepiece of the concourse at three new stations on the West Island Line while other locations are incorporating artwork by local people.
Mead admits that it is sometimes challenging to deliver an aesthetically pleasing and practical result from this process "because not everyone is Picasso," and to secure general public approval. He says this has become increasingly difficult with the growth of social media where "almost everyone now has an opinion, and it takes a long time to identify meaningful and constructive input."
"We want to create a balance between offering a familiar and standardised experience and providing a unique sense of place," Mead says. "MTR belongs to Hong Kong, and a station belongs to a certain district. But what makes it your station? Our architects are working to create a building that is unique and relates to the context of that area."
The new stations are also designed to cater for disabled and elderly passengers. After consulting with disabled groups, MTR provides tactile cues and paths, and Braille on key features such as lifts and stairs. Accessibility is also enhanced through the addition of lifts.
Mead says that it is clear that while Hong Kong's early stations were designed to address the needs of the majority of users, the absence of lifts shows that disabled passengers were overlooked. Considerations have improved since then, but he says that it is important that retrofits and new installations are easily accessible and not difficult for passengers to find.
"Where the lift is located is very important to encourage people to use it," Mead says. "Ideally they should be located in the centre of the station and transport passengers directly to the platform, rather than in the corner of the station where it is difficult to find and will not get used."
Lifts are also being installed on new station projects as an alternative to escalators to overcome the difficulties associated with Hong Kong's contrasting topography. This inevitably poses major challenges to construction to the extent that for years the western extension of the Island Line was deemed too difficult to make it a worthwhile undertaking.
Hong Kong University station on the under-construction West Island Line, which is on course to open in December, will use a high-capacity
vertical lift system. Four lifts each with capacity for 28 people will transfer passengers at 3.5m/s direct from the university to the underground station in less than a minute with separate boarding and alighting lobbies allowing smooth passenger flow.
While solutions like high-speed lifts and escalators which provide rapid access and exit from stations for a high number of passengers are desirable, it is imperative they are combined with a natural wayfinding experience. Again MTR's in-house teams have worked on signage designs and identified effective locations for specific signs to direct passengers at different stages of their journey so they do not have to stop to think where they are and where they are going.
"There is a unique distance between each customer and their place of work," Wong explains. "We have a desire to create an environment that is familiar so you know where you are when you are underground and not sure what the weather is like outside and where there are no specific landmarks from which you can record your location. We want to reinforce the feeling of being comfortable in a familiar environment."
These signage solutions play a critical role during peak operating times. Flexibility in station design means the layout is adaptable to these conditions through changing what is defined as a paid and a not-paid area, opening up ticket barriers to improve passenger flow, and by altering in-flow and out-flow at ticket barriers so passengers leaving the station do not clash with those entering.
"In our station plan, signage is designed to help with this," Wong says. "Temporary barriers can also segregate in-flow and out-flow at certain times, and this is quite typical at all stations. We try to utilise what we can to make it as easy as possible for passengers."
Any rail user across the world will know that along with signage, display advertising is an integral feature of any station space. These installations provide an important revenue stream for operators and are now part of a trend towards utilising station areas for a variety of commercial opportunities.
It is no different in Hong Kong. Mead says that identifying commercial opportunities is part of the fabric of MTR, with the company considering its stations as an extension of Hong Kong's existing retail scene by going "beyond a typical 7/11."
Indeed Wong says that every space is a potential commercial area, and while he emphasises that these installations do not impact MTR's duty as an operator and provider of railway services, station designs incorporate space that might be leased to a commercial partner.
The results of these activities are impressive. The company hosted 1226 shops across 56,350m2 of retail space at its 95 station as of December 31 2013, and reported revenues of $HK 4.59bn ($US 592m) in 2013, an increase of 24.7%, compared with 2012. Station retail accounted for $HK 2.93bn of this figure, an increase of 36.9% over the previous year, while advertising accounts for $HK 1.05bn. Revenue from telecommunications services grew by 12.9% to $HK 447m following the addition of 4G services and increased data capacity, while total Ebitda for MTR's complete station commercial operations was $HK 4.12bn in 2013, an increase of 25.6% over 2012.
"One of the reasons that people rate our services so highly is that we offer them the opportunity to buy things at our stations, and things that they actually want to buy," Mead says. "These commercial opportunities are also important to keeping the farebox prices low. Our property finance model is well documented for financing many of our projects, but by offering commercial opportunities as well, our revenues remain strong from retail sources throughout the life of the line."
When the West Island Line opens at the end of the year, it will increase both commercial opportunities and the number of passengers using MTR's stations on the existing network. Mead and Wong are confident that the network's stations will handle this extra demand, and that the company can overcome any difficulties that might emerge and keep people moving.
One innovative response to the challenges of more people using the network is already up-and-running.
In August MTR's new acting CEO Mr Lincoln Leong announced that MTR will operate 600 extra services on its six busiest lines from August 29, and in an effort to tackle the associated congestion at peak times, he launched a six-month trial of an Early Bird Discount Promotion. This initiative offers Octopus smartcard users a 25% discount if they exit any of the 29 core urban MTR stations from 07.15 to 08.15 Monday to Friday, and is intended to spread the load of the network beyond the usual peak periods by encouraging people to leave for work earlier.
Mead welcomes the trial, and while he says it is too early to draw any conclusions at this point, it is critical that MTR tries such things in an effort to retain high levels of efficiency.
Indeed if the scheme is a success, other operators around the world may again look to MTR to overcome similar high levels of peak time station congestion on their networks.