21 September 2019
The replacement of British-made trains with Chinese units could spark public concern over the service reliability of the MTR system.  Photos: Internet, MTR
The replacement of British-made trains with Chinese units could spark public concern over the service reliability of the MTR system. Photos: Internet, MTR

Is MTR washing away our memories of the good old days?

Hong Kong’s rapid transit railway system, widely known as the MTR, is one of the best infrastructure projects built during the British colonial rule, supporting commuters with fast and reliable train service.

But as the MTR system celebrates its 36 years of service in the territory, its management decided to replace all existing British-made trains with ones manufactured in mainland China, marking the end of the British era in the city’s underground system.

The mass replacement of British-style trains with Chinese units could spark public concern over the service reliability of the MTR system.

This is a distinct possibility amid reports that Chinese-made trains contain materials that are deemed hazardous to health.

Such concerns could affect the corporate image of MTR as well as Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city.

MTR Corp., which operates the system, has confirmed that it will purchase 93 new eight-car trains to replace all of the first-generation trains now operating on the Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, Island and Tseung Kwan O lines.

The new trains, featuring modern operating systems and equipment, will be delivered to Hong Kong between 2018 and 2023. The first of the new trains is expected to start service towards the end of 2018 at the earliest.

The contract for the new trains has been awarded to CSR Qingdao Sifang Co. Ltd. (CSR Sifang). It is worth HK$6 billion, which translates into HK$8 million per carriage. That makes the trains much cheaper than the average cost of HK$13 million for metro carriages worldwide.

Many Hongkongers expressed their anger on social media over the MTR decision, saying the company chose to ignore public safety for the sake of securing bargain deals and pleasing Beijing authorities.

They also lamented the phaseout of the British-made Metro-Cammell trains, saying that their replacement is tantamount to removing the mementoes that remind Hong Kong people of the “good old days” under the British rule.

From the business perspective, the MTR management is duty-bound to choose the most competitive tender from the bidders.

That also explains why Chinese makers of rolling stock and telecommunication equipment are expanding their market share across the globe; they are riding on their low-cost advantage to snatch contracts from their European counterparts.

Currently, MTR has 23 Chinese-made, eight-carriage trains in service. Trains for the future South Island Line and the Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong High Speed Rail will also use Chinese-made trains.

As such, Chinese trains will account for the majority of the MTR trains in service after the replacement project is completed by 2023.

Most Hong Kong people are not exactly crazy about Chinese-made products, and they have reasons to be doubtful about goods and services coming from across the border.

The lead-contaminated water saga in several public housing estates in the territory is just the latest example. The contamination was traced to the water pipes installed by China State Construction, a mainland state-owned company.

Chinese-made MTR trains have also experienced technical problems, which have led to minor delays in the city’s rail services.

Still, MTR executives have chosen Chinese trains for all the new lines, including the controversial high-speed rail service between Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Last year, the Hong Kong government confirmed that high-speed trains manufactured by CSR Sifang had not adopted the European safety standard EN15227 under which trains are built to withstand collisions at a relative speed of 36 kilometers per hour.

Instead, the Chinese trains follow another European standard, EN12663, under which the trains are built to withstand collisions at a relative speed of 10 kph.

To ensure the safe operation of the high-speed rail, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department said the MTR trains must be able to meet a safety level comparable to EN15227 and pass trial runs before they can be used for public service.

Moreover, Chinese-made trains were found to contain asbestos in the past three years in Australia and New Zealand, forcing local train operators to pull them from service to avoid any adverse impact on the passengers’ health.

Such reports could also affect the confidence of Hong Kong commuters who are now confronted with the knowledge that their key mode of transport is running on unsafe Chinese-made trains.

With CSR Group having such a sorry track record in train manufacturing, it is quite difficult to understand why MTR still decided to go with the Chinese firm.

But, of course, Hong Kong people are aware that the MTR is seeking to expand in China for business growth.

Building a strong relation with CSR Group should help the Hong Kong railway operator to gain more projects in China.

In fact, MTR is now involved in several railway operations across the border, including those in Shenzhen, Beijing and Hangzhou.

Hong Kong is now a showroom for Chinese trains to go global.

Given all these considerations, can the Hong Kong public change the MTR decision?

Good luck, Hong Kong commuters. And pray.

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EJ Insight writer