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Ride gets bumpy for HK train network

Publication Date : 06-05-2014


Hong Kong's much-vaunted subway system appears to be veering off track in recent times.

First came periodic train stoppages - with at least six major incidents in the past half year - frustrating commuters used to fast, smooth rides.

Then came the big bust-up - the surprise revelation that the completion of a HK$67 billion (US$8.6 billion) high-speed rail linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou will be delayed by two years and be ready only in 2017.

Yesterday, Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung and head honchos of the MTR Corporation (MTRC), including its chairman, Raymond Chien, apologised for the debacle, and for failing to keep the public informed.

"We have let you down," said MTRC chief executive Jay Walder, while rejecting calls by legislators for him to step down.

So far, two members of his team have taken the fall.

MTRC officials blame bad weather and complicated geological features encountered during excavation for the delay.

While mega infrastructure projects are often derailed due to unforeseen obstacles, the current controversy has gained legs partly due to perceptions of a cover-up.

Rumours of trouble surfaced in May last year but were vehemently denied by the company. It also transpired that Dr Cheung knew of the problem in November but did not make it public after a phone conversation with Walder as he wanted to give MTRC "the benefit of the doubt". The government has a 76 per cent stake in MTRC, which is listed.

So what lies behind the recent woes of the subway system, long lauded, including by Singaporeans, as a shining example of public transport in the world?

The problems are multi-faceted and the causes just as diverse.

But the broad picture painted by analysts is that of a company that has always taken pride in delivering the goods, but which has come under unprecedented pressure by having bitten off more than it can chew.

Ridership on Hong Kong's trains is at a high, with 5.2 million trips made in a weekday.

Meanwhile, the company is juggling its lucrative business of developing property with its core mission of keeping the public transport system going.

Projects are piling up as MTRC races to finish the express rail link to mainland China - a commissioned project posing technical challenges different from those it is more familiar with - while also adding four new line extensions to its existing 218km network.

Veteran transport analyst Hung Wing Tat did not mince his words. He said: "They want to show that they are big heroes."

The hubris and the heavy workload appear to have exerted a toll.

In a statement to The Straits Times, MTRC said the train service it provided last year "was the best" since 2007. There were 143 delays lasting eight minutes or more, down from 146 and 190 in the preceding two years.

But the numbers do not reflect the severity of some stoppages. One along the Tseung Kwan O line, for instance, halted services for nearly five hours in what was called the worst disruption in a decade.

"The current operational disruptions are rather serious in terms of time length and in some cases the handling did not meet the MTRC's past performance records," said researcher Rikkie Yeung, who wrote the book Moving Millions: The Commercial Success And Political Controversies Of Hong Kong's Railways.

One factor is labour shortage, both in construction and maintenance. About a quarter of MTRC's maintenance staff are outsourced workers from contractors. This, said Dr Hung, could have compromised standards, calling it a case of "too few people working on too many projects".

Meanwhile, the management's attention is likely to have been distracted by business expansion outside Hong Kong and new projects, said Dr Yeung.

All this, at a time when the 30-year-old system is experiencing wear and tear.

But while standards may be slipping, Hong Kong's MTR system remains a superb one. It maintained an on-time performance of 99.9 per cent last year, meaning that a passenger experienced a delay only once for every 1,000 trips - an enviable record.

The recent episodes are thus more of a wake-up call, both for MTRC and the government. Dr Cheung admitted as much when he said: "On whether we trusted MTRC too much, indeed there was a lapse in my judgment."

Will senior management change its ways? Walder did not endear himself to legislators when he sought to narrow the scope of the problem to "miscommunication".

"The biggest problem is not the management," he said.


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