The Hong Kong government on Friday appointed a top judge to head a three-member expert panel to look into the delayed Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed rail project.
It was another move to ease public anger over the fiasco and, more importantly, over management chaos in MTR Corp. and the government, which holds a majority stake in the listed company.
Justice Hartman, a retired Court of Appeal judge and a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, will be joined by Britain’s chief construction adviser Paul Hansford and Andrew Whittle, a civil engineering professor from the United States.
Acting Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the panel will investigate systemic deficiencies and find ways to strengthen systems but not pinpoint responsibility or recommend penalties. She said the panel could report if they found certain situations attributable to man-made factors.
How to determine liability, if any, for the individuals involved would be left to the government and MTRC, Lam said.
The experts are expected to start work in June and submit a report by November.
The panel was announced by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying shortly after Transport Minister Anthony Cheung and top MTRC executives offered an apology for the delay at a Legislative Council subcommittee meeting on May 5.
Ironically, the team suffered an early setback when University of Hong Kong scholar Lee Chack-fan quit less than three hours after his being named to the panel on May 2. The resignation followed media reports that Lee was on the board of a construction company which worked on the rail project.
Separately, the MTRC board named a group of non-executive members led by former financial services minister Frederick Ma to look into the two-year delay.
The government and MTRC had initially promised the HK$67 billion (US$8.64 billion) rail link would be up and running in 2015. Citing unforeseen factors including geological problems and bad weather, they announced last month tnat the project will be delayed until 2017.
MTRC faced severe criticism for incompetence and failure to report the delay to the government. Cheung was accused of collaborating with MTRC in misleading the public.
Under enormous public pressure, MTRC chairman Raymond Ch’ien told a post-shareholders’ meeting that chief executive Jay Walder’s contract will not be renewed when it expires in August next year.
Unconfirmed media reports said Cheung had offered to step down but was asked to stay.
A move by pan-democratic legislators to invoke the powers and privileges ordinance to conduct an inquiry into the fiasco has been rejected but some pro-government lawmakers said they might reconsider if a new motion is raised.
The Liberal Party had said they would wait for the government’s reply to their demand for an inquiry by an independent commission. Shortly after the Friday announcement, the Liberals said they would not support a motion to invoke the ordinance for an inquiry.
With growing political pressure on Cheung, the government is hoping an early start to the expert probe can help cool the temperature.
Meanwhile, Executive Council member Fanny Law is publicly backing Cheung. Law spoke after some newspapers reported this week that Exco, a decision-making body chaired by Leung, had discussed the project.
Most members reportedly threw their weight behind Cheung and laid the blame at Walder’s door.
Exco’s views might have been leaked to the media to defuse speculation about Cheung’s future.
By doing so, the Leung administration could put the political fallout behind it and get on with the work of ensuring that the rail project is never thrown off track again.
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