Heavy Rail



Sunday Statshot with Nick Chu: Public Transport Profitability – Hong Kong’s MTR (Mass Transit Railway)

Hong Kong's density is a little like New York's... except it's on roids. Image Flickr user by Brad-514.

In terms of financial viability, public transportation in North America is a perpetual loser. However, rumours have it that some transit agencies abroad break even or even make a profit. So let us take a closer look into one of these transit agencies –  Hong Kong’s MTR (Mass Transit Railway) – and see if its profitability scheme could work in your city:

Hong Kong’s population: 7 million

Year MTR was established: 1979

Kilometers of rail in 1984: 66

In 2004: 255

Daily ridership in 2011: 4 million

Percentage of public transport trips taken on MTR: 42

Average fare increase of MTR since 1979: 5.6% per annum

Average growth rate of Consumer Price Index: 5.6% per annum

Percentage more high depreciation and financing costs are compared to recurrent operating costs: 25

Percentage increase in MTR’s non-fare revenue (i.e. developing and enhancing commercial activities) for past 20 years: 50

Percentage of total operating costs due to high depreciation and financial burden of recent/new rail projects: 50

Percentage of railway operating revenue derived from: 1) property development profit and; 2) rental and management income: 50

Percentage of MTR’s profits (before tax) generated by: 1) property development profit and; 2) rental and management income: 90 *

Per-unit operating cost before depreciation and interest of Hong Kong’s KMB (Kowloon Motor Bus) bus operations: HK$0.10 per passenger space-km

MTR: HK$0.09 per passenger space-km

Operating Cost after depreciation and interest for KMB: HK$0.12

MTR: HK$0.18 * (explanation below)

Indirect subsidies available to MTR: Granted exclusive right to real estate property development above railway stations **

Cost of 1200 square foot “old” apartment unit: USD $1.9 million

Cost per square foot of “top” end properties: $10,500

Percentage more costly compared to London, New York and Moscow: 40

Population density: 6,500 persons per square kilometer

Most densely population district in Hong Kong: Kwun Tong

Population density: 53,110 persons per square kilometer

* While the government builds and maintains roads at no cost to bus operators (i.e. bus operating companies use roads for free), MTR funds, builds and owns the railway infrastructure/assets. As such, the operating cost after depreciation and interest for rail operations are always higher than bus operations.

** The local government in Hong Kong virtually owns all land. Given MRT’s exclusive property rights given to them by the government, MRT does not need to go through public auction as is normal for land sale in Hong Kong. Instead, MTR pays a premium that’s determined through negotiations and they earn development profits that payback rail investments.  In other words, without development rights above railway stations, MTR is unable to earn a viable return.

Economics / Heavy Rail / Sunday Statshot
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The New York Subway As Musical Instrument

Alexander Chan is a musician, artist and and employee of Google Creative Labs in Brooklyn, New York. He’s also created one of the most magnificent interpretations of a subway map I’ve yet to ever see:



As Alexander explains on his blog, the piece, titled Conductor:

. . . turns the New York subway system into an interactive string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the piece begins in realtime by spawning trains which departed in the last minute, then continues accelerating through a 24 hour loop. The visuals are based on Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 diagram.

The piece follows some rules. Every minute, it checks for new trains launched from their end stations. The train then moves towards the end of the line, with its speed set by the schedule’s estimated trip duration. Some decisions were made for musical, aesthetic, and technical reasons, such as fading out routes over time, the gradual time acceleration, and limiting the number of concurrent trains. Also, I used the weekday schedule. Some of these limitations result in subtle variations, as different trains are chosen during each 24-hour loop.

The result is hypnotic. An enchanting work that is both equal parts familiar and entirely unique.

I could easily imagine video panels scattered throughout the NYC subway system providing interested riders with an original and whimsical view of the commute they’ve taken every day of their lives but never considered it in such a beautiful and compelling way.

Public transit needs more things like this.

You can experience Conductor live here.



The Metro Inspiro: A Subway By BMW

The Metro Inspiro by Siemens.

The Siemens Metro Inspiro. Designed by BMW.

Most of us can’t afford to drive a BMW everyday to work.

But what if you could ride a BMW everyday?

The Siemens Group recently commissioned BMW’s subsidiary Designworks USA to design a new kind of subway train.

Dubbed the Metro Inspiro, it is a train the likes of which you’ve never seen: Cork floors, adaptive lighting, custom seat trims, door-lit graphics, electronic scheduling iconography and the so-called Light-Tree handrail system all make this one of the most innovative transit vehicles ever designed.

Siemens is taking a big bet that this may be the way of the future in transit and so far they’ve been proven right. The City of Warsaw, Poland has already ordered 35 Inspiros to a total value of 270 million Euros.

While the other features may be nothing more than frill (more on that later), the Light-Tree handrail solves a problem that all subways have, but no one’s taken the time to tackle. People come in a variety of shapes, sizes and heights, yet all subway trains tend to assume otherwise and force riders all to grip onto the same bars and pipes which are oftentimes inaccessible due to crowding.

Instead, the Light-Tree borrows a page from nature and mimics the fractal trunk-and-branch structure of actual trees. In this way, handrails are easily accessible to everyone at whatever level is most comfortable for them.

Interior of the Metro Inspiro. Note the carefully designed Light-Tree handrails.

It’s such a remarkably simple idea: Design for humans and riders. Not engineers.

In the past I’ve argued that transit Form is equally important as transit Function – if not more so. That is, Function is no longer enough. Transit is losing the war to cars at least in part because cars provide a more pleasurable experience than transit. In the future, it’s form, design and an attention to the needs of the rider that will separate the transit winners from the transit losers.

A subway train that makes a man or woman feel dignity, class and wealth has a clear psychological advantage over trains that make one feel lowly, plain and poor. That psychological advantage, one can reasonably assume, should translate into increased ridership.

10 year old Ford Fiesta or a brand new BMW train?

Maybe it’s unbecoming of a planner to say this, but base psychological issues are at the core of how people behave. To ignore the psychology of people invalidates a planners’ models and makes them irrelevant. When we accept the assumption that people are more likely to ride something that makes them feel good, we can begin to tackle the bigger issue of how to get people to stop driving and take transit instead.

When one looks at the Inspiro, one has an immediate I want to ride that now! reaction. Those reactions are rare in transit, but important.

If it takes a BMW to get people to ride transit, I’m all for it.



How To Build A Railway In The 21st Century

Let’s just say that a train that can lay its own tracks is pretty impressive. Not Chinese Tunnel Bus™ impressive, but impressive enough. I’ll let the video explain:

Found via Gizmodo, The Presurfer and Neatorama.

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