23 October 2016
London Mayor Sadiq Khan tries the city's Night Tube. Photo: CNN
London Mayor Sadiq Khan tries the city's Night Tube. Photo: CNN

Should MTR offer 24-hour services like London?

From proposal to reality, it took London about two decades to make Night Tube service happen. Now, the Tube will run 24 hours a day on Fridays and Saturdays.

Currently, New York is the only city that has a subway system that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cities like Berlin and Copenhagen provide through-the-night services on weekends, and now London too.

The logic behind 24-hour underground train services is to match the changing lifestyle of city dwellers, who are increasingly enjoying nightlife, such as watching midnight movies or visiting 24-hour bookstores.

Some companies also implement flexible working hours and allow employees to work in office late at night.

However, the lack of public transportation is a typical problem. One can take the taxi but that is an expensive option.

It’s not uncommon to see many well-dressed office workers sleeping on the streets in Tokyo, as they have missed the last train and don’t want to spend a fortune on a taxi ride.

For that reason, cities like London believe 24-hour train service is the solution that not only addresses the late-night commuting issue but may also boost catering, retail and entertainment businesses as well as improve corporate efficiency.

London has launched Night Tube service on five routes in the downtown area.

It’s estimated that the late-night economy is worth some 26.3 billion pounds (US$34.6 billion) each year, representing 8 percent of London’s total GDP and providing 720,000 jobs for the city.

The Night Tube service is expected to boost the late-night economy by more than 10 percent and create several thousand additional jobs.

The move has been applauded by restaurants and bars and retailers like Tesco.

Hopefully, the Night Tube service will inject some vitality into the city’s economy given concerns about the negative impact of the Brexit vote.

Offering through-the-night services does make financial sense in bustling cities like Hong Kong.

The biggest cost in operating the railway is construction, which is a fixed cost.

Adding overnight services at weekends will only increase variable costs such as staff and electricity for the railway operator.

Both the Hong Kong government and MTR Corp. (00066.HK) have studied the possibility of providing through-the-night services, but have concluded that it is unfeasible.

Most lines and stations in Hong Kong’s metro service are in densely populated residential areas, and through-the-night services will cause noise pollution to nearby residents.

Part of the reason why it took so long for London to introduce the Night Tube is the huge amount of work involved in installing soundproof windows and doors for existing subway stations.

The initiative was also strongly opposed by other stakeholders in the public transport industry, like bus, taxi and minibus operators.

Unlike London or New York, Hong Kong does offer plenty of alternatives, like through-the-night minibuses. Taxi fare is also more affordable in Hong Kong.

Given that MTR already owns half of the city’s public transport market, opening 24-hour services may further increase its dominance and hurt the businesses of minibus and taxi drivers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 20

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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