15 July 2019
Hundreds of thousands of rush-hour commuters were stranded inside MTR stations following a massive service breakdown on Tuesday. Photo: Bloomberg
Hundreds of thousands of rush-hour commuters were stranded inside MTR stations following a massive service breakdown on Tuesday. Photo: Bloomberg

Heads must roll the next time MTR screws up again

Not so long ago, a foreign video blogger, or vlogger, visited Hong Kong and shot a video of the city’s rail system, praising the MTR for providing what was deemed the best railway service in the world.

In particular, the vlogger was highly impressed by an existing mechanism under which the MTR will be fined HK$1 million for any service delay that lasts more than 30 minutes.

In the video clip, the vlogger called on railway operators across the globe to learn from us.

Ironically, while that one-minute clip continued to circulate on the internet, the MTR suffered its worst-ever service breakdown on Tuesday, leaving hundreds of thousands of angry and frustrated commuters stranded inside jampacked railway stations across Hong Kong.

As to the root cause of that unprecedented service breakdown, some people initially suspected that it had something to do with the signaling system test carried out along the Tsuen Wan line.

As the test suddenly went terribly wrong, it not only paralyzed the entire Tsuen Wan line, but the system breakdown also spilled over to the Kwun Tong, Island and Tseung Kwan O lines as well, thereby triggering chaos across most of Hong Kong.

However, that inference was completely dismissed by Tony Lee Kar-yun, the MTR’s chief of operations engineering.

Lee told a radio interview on Wednesday that he couldn’t see any correlation between the bungled signaling test carried out along the Tsuen Wan line and the massive system failure that affected the other three lines.

The newly installed signaling system along the Tsuen Wan line is completely separate from the existing system, he explained. 

He also ruled out human error as the cause of the mayhem.

If anything, Lee’s explanation simply raised more questions than answers.

If, as he explained, the newly installed signaling system on the Tsuen Wan line is a completely separate network, then why on earth would the system failure trigger a chain reaction and lead to the complete service breakdown of the other three rail lines?

Is it because the existing hardware of these rail lines had already become so old and obsolete that it was simply pushed over the edge on that day?

As expected, both Lee and other senior management staff of the MTR did not give the public a clear answer about what actually happened.

All they have promised, as in past incidents, is that they will carry out a complete and thorough investigation.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said he understood the public concern over the widespread service breakdown and vowed to get to the bottom of the incident.

He also promised to discuss the existing financial penalty mechanism over service delays with the MTR management.

A fine of HK$1 million for any service delay that exceeds 30 minutes might have impressed the foreign vlogger we mentioned above, but we all know that such an amount is just peanuts compared to the tens of billions of dollars in profits the MTR is making every year.

And that begs the question: Is the current financial penalty system really sufficient to serve as an effective deterrent to the MTR?

Let’s also not forget the core and fundamental source of profits for the publicly traded MTR Corp. lies not in its rail service but in its juicy real estate projects and shopping mall revenues.

The fact that the MTR management may have become, to a certain degree, more interested in building luxury homes and fancy shopping malls than in running its rail lines and that rail engineers have been sidelined in the board of the company can probably explain why the quality of its rail service has continued to deteriorate in recent years.

Over the years, repeated calls from the public to drastically reform the MTR and improve its corporate governance have already become a cliche, and so has the demand to enhance government accountability over our railway service.

Hongkongers are already at the end of their tether over the repeated negligence of the MTR.

Still, we feel compelled to stress once again that in order to straighten out the MTR, the government must enhance the existing penalty mechanism so that whenever the company screws up again, not only will it be fined, but the people who are responsible for the mistakes will have to pack up and leave as well.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 18

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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