Date
18 December 2017
The government has to play a more active role in its new railway master plans to ensure that the public is always the top priority. Photo: Bloomberg
The government has to play a more active role in its new railway master plans to ensure that the public is always the top priority. Photo: Bloomberg

MTR should stay away from the new rail project

Hong Kong has unveiled a HK$110 billion plan to build seven new rail projects that, together with the existing network, will cover most of the territory.

Under the plan, for example, it would take only 22 minutes to travel from Tseung Kwan O to Admiralty, compared with the current journey time of nearly an hour. Overcrowding in most routes will be solved as well.

Secretary of Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said cost estimates and construction schedules are still in the preliminary stage, but some quarters already starting to worry that such mega projects could face serious delays and budget overruns.

The government also revealed that it may consider hiring operators other than the MTR Corporation to run the railway lines under the master plan released on Wednesday, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported. The new policy reflects the public’s lack of confidence in MTR.

As a listed company, MTR raises fares nearly every year to meet its shareholders’ expectations. However, the widespread perception is that it has been unable to play its role as a public service company.

The new railway proposals came on the heels of a Legislative Council inquiry into delays in ongoing MTR projects and a series of accidents involving its trains.

The corporation is also struggling to fend off criticisms about its poor corporate governance. MTR’s former chief executive Jay Walder stepped down from his post after receiving nearly HK$20 million in remuneration. Walder had been blamed for failing to adequately supervise the rail link to Guangzhou, which is now two years behind schedule and facing cost overruns.

For a long time, MTR has played the role of a public transport company as well as property developer.

Every time the government decides to build a new railway link, MTR would explain that the fare revenue from the project would not cover the operational costs.

So in order to entice the firm to accept the project, the government would offer the land above and adjacent to the MTR stations and depots as part of the deal.

The Austin and LOHAS Park projects, which are linked to the MTR stations in those areas, are just two of the most recent examples.

In order to break free from such an expensive arrangement, the government has to play a more active role in its new railway master plans.

The Project Rose Garden, which was started in the early 1990s, can be seen as a role model. The core infrastructure of the mega project was the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok on Lantau Island, which was then a no man’s land.

At least nine large infrastructure projects had to be initiated in order to connect the new airport to the urban areas. Those included the Airport Railway, Tsing Ma Bridge, Route 3 Highway, Western Harbor Crossing and West Kowloon Land Reclamation.

The whole Project Rose Garden took about eight years to finish, costing a combined HK$16 billion.

Looking back, the project has been a major contributor to Hong Kong’s social and economic development.

It was a huge success not only because the government was able to support it with long-term development policies, but also because it coordinated with different interested parties to implement the various infrastructure projects and make things run as smoothly as they did.

If we are to learn from history, the government should take up the leading role in implementing the new railway master plan. After all, the railway system is for the public good, and the public should always be the top priority.

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CG

EJ Insight writer

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