Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Dr Taku Fujiyama of University College London about the state of skills, passenger flow and metro developments in Asia Pacific

Dr Taku Fujiyama is an Associate Professor at Department of Civil Engineering, University College London. Raised in Kyoto, he was a civil engineer at East Japan Railway Company in the Tokyo Metropolitan area where he was involved in many station development projects, including the modernisation of Naoetsu Station, the modernisation of Shinjyuku station, the realignment of tracks at Ikebukuro Station.

At UCL his research includes railway traffic optimisation as well as passenger movements within railway systems. He collaborates with a range of rail operators and research institutions across the world (such as metro in London, Beijing, Tokyo, etc.)

In collaboration with Universities in Shanghai, Beijing and Bangkok Dr Fujiyama and UCL are conducting a series of workshops across these countries to build a knowledge base in rail engineering.

Tell me about these Metro Workshops you’re conducting.
University College London is collaborating with Jiao Tong University in Beijing and Shanghai. The goal is knowledge exchange and capability building, we have developed a Master’s programme so Chinese students can do their first year of study in a Chinese university and then the second year they can come to UCL for one year of study and then return to China to complete their final and in the end they will have two degrees, one from each university.

We are thinking about the next stage for potential applications from this. Railway is a global business and so researchers and educators need to be globally minded as well, there is also a worldwide competition amongst universities to build programs that are appealing.

I am interested in the metro systems in Beijing and Shanghai, every year they have two or three new lines opening so that’s very exciting. They had a serious air pollution problem that they needed to fix quickly, and they seem to have settled on rail transit as a solution.

In Beijing passenger crowding is the biggest problem, this typically occurs once the population has adopted public transport and the metro covers a large area. Some of the students at our workshops are already employed within the industry and are aiming to become consultants. In Thailand the Government is sending people to study abroad and then return to start a new curriculum in Bangkok, so eventually every university will offer this course, the career opportunities in Thailand are mostly at the operational level though.

The UK educators would like to invite people to study but also we want to bring people to come and work. But as I said rail should be a globalised community of professionals, improving the railway industry image is important, we see everywhere that not so many women are choosing rail as a career.

Before taking up your current position you worked as a civil engineer for JR East in Japan. What projects did you work on there?
I was at JR East for five years, I was involved in the Shinjyuku and Ikebukuro station development. My grandfather was a JNR civil engineer, so it’s a family business in a way.

What made you decide to move to University College London?
When I was designing stations, I found there was not much background for calculations on passenger flow, and I was interested in elderly and disabled people and how they are able to access train stations.

What were your previous impressions of rail and transport infrastructure in the UK compared to Asia prior to working there and how has that changed in the time since?
I have been in the UK for 16 years now. The infrastructure is quite old so it requires more time and labour intensive work to maintain and upgrade, the challenges in the UK are all linked to that dynamic in some way.

In China and South Korea this is not really an issue because so much of the infrastructure is new, but in terms of passengers there are similarities because more and more people are working flexible hours and in non-standard occupations and urban transport has to evolve to handle that.

Hong Kong’s total area and population is the same as greater London, but the area where people actually live and work is much less. So, passenger flow is a much greater problem there.

In Japan the conclusion around punctuality is that most delays are passenger related, not structural or anything. The UK has TOC orientated problems and Network Rail orientated problems, there are many infrastructure related delays in the UK.

You’ve said previously that long railway lines in radial directions are not good. Could you expand on that?
You have a city, city centre and then a line that moves out from the centre, so this presents a challenge like crowding, when you develop a railway network we tend to think only about available land. We need to have a different approach to this, in the older cities that we discussed it’s mostly about expanding lines in areas where there is space.

The volume of a radial line depends on the design of the circular line and branch lines that feed into it, so at the planning stage you need to have more land set aside for this expansion when it becomes clear how that expansion should go.

China and Japan are competing for bids across Southeast Asia, how do you see the two countries differing in their approach?
It depends on how you define success, is it imperative that the project performs financially in the short term or that it functions for the population as it expands? For example, some contractors have what I call the inkjet printer business model, the initial cost is very cheap but if you want to extend the system or do maintenance the new parts are very expensive, so this might not necessarily be a success depending on what the goal of the project is.

If you look around the world there very few rail companies that make a profit from carrying passengers only, they have other revenue streams from property. So, planners need to develop new schemes to make money from the land that they own and monetise the customers that come with the business of transportation.

In the UK, the franchise contract tends to be five or seven years whereas an infrastructure owner has to think 20 years down the line in terms of planning. There is this mismatch between owner and operator. The railway is not like a mobile phone where you buy a new one every year, the machinery has to last decades.

If country A wants to buy infrastructure from Japan or China, the team has to have the skills to manoeuvre within the negotiations. Making money in the long term requires accepting certain standards.

Are smaller cities like Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or even Vientiane, which are more reliant on the motorcycle, going to have an easier time of convincing their populations to switch to public transport?
This is a city-wide problem, to promote railways you need multiple policies that are outside of rail but encourage its use, Beijing used to be a bicycle dominated city and then the car became king, now there are many lines and more people use them.

The Government had a car rationing system so depending on your number plate you could only use your car on certain days. We’ve been discussing this in the workshop, access and easiness of the railway (getting there and then getting to where you need to go). Bike parking spaces in Beijing have become much more ubiquitous as there are a lot of bike rental systems around the stations.

Do you think countries like Myanmar and Cambodia should focus more on developing city metros or repairing their cross-country railways?
How demand will change over time depends on the country, for city mayors now I would recommend securing land for potential rail projects. As long as the land is there to build on its much easier to plan and make projections, going through land acquisition can cause complications to this process.

The Kuala Lumpur monorail is seen as a bit of a disaster, yet the city’s subway system is quite popular. Are monorails less effective than other types of LRT and urban rail?
Generally speaking, its very difficult to develop the people who have the necessary skills to maintain the asset properly, in the UK and Japan there is a history that has steadily built to a standard that is at the level it needs to be to maintain the infrastructure.

Longevity requires constant maintenance and asset management gets tested the longer you keep the system alive, and that’s where the skills and required standards come in to play. The Asian Development Bank invests a lot in infrastructure, but it could also think about people development. Some international agencies do this but only on a small level which isn’t enough to switch culture.

What do you make of passenger flow in cities like Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong? What could these cities do to improve?
Passenger flow and headway is not a problem in Bangkok because the frequency is not as high as other cities. The more trains you try to run the more managing passengers becomes a bigger challenge. The new lines are avoiding intersections of passenger flow in other directions as well.

In wider terms, which countries are making the most progress in terms of innovation?
As a Japanese civil engineer I can say that Japan’s biggest contribution in the last century is the Shinkansen but actually that technology is just a small extension of the existing technology. The main contribution that came from that project is the business model. For the 21st Century I think we need a new business model and railway concept that will lead to innovation.