18 July 2019
A file picture shows an MTR employee standing next to a vacant Tsuen Wan Line train during a temporary service suspension between Admiralty and Central following a subway train collision on March 18. Photo; Bloomberg
A file picture shows an MTR employee standing next to a vacant Tsuen Wan Line train during a temporary service suspension between Admiralty and Central following a subway train collision on March 18. Photo; Bloomberg

Lessons from MTR’s works scandal, service failures

Hong Kong’s railway system and the public transport operator MTR Corporation had won high praise in the past, both at home and overseas, for their efficiency and quality of service.

In recent years, however, news such as project delays, cost overruns, work-quality lapses and missing documentation have shaken the confidence of the public in the rail operator.

A service failure in March this year when operations were suspended on the Tsuen Wan line between Central and Admiralty stations for two days following a train collision brought the problems to the fore once again.

Earlier, a committee investigating a construction scandal at MTR’s Hung Hom station extension works for the Shatin to Central Link (SCL) project submitted an interim report on February 25. The report, however, has not touched upon some fundamental issues at the core.

The first and foremost is whether double standards have been adopted in supervising private and public works.

At present, supervision over private projects is generally strict with the relevant authorized persons being held liable for contract, legal and professional lapses.

But when it comes to public works projects, infrastructure projects, or MTR-commissioned projects, some statutory requirements can be skipped.

Second is the shortage of professional manpower in the government.

Currently, regardless of how unhappy the government is towards MTR, it still has to depend on the company to sort out the ‘mess’ as the government lack professionals or members with relevant and sufficient experience to conduct work supervision themselves.

The establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Major Project Leaders (CoE), which was put forward in the 2018 policy address, could be a good start for equipping public officers with relevant skills in the delivery of public works projects.

On top of ensuring theoretical knowledge, officers should be given a chance to participate in designing, construction and management of infrastructure projects. They should be given the opportunity to work in the field rather than just told to monitor works while sitting in air-conditioned offices.

Another key issue is the tendering approach and contracts. The government should not only review the concession approach that has been adopted for SCL, it should also keep the design-build-operate (DBO) contract to a minimum. This becomes necessary because the government would usually have little say or power to intervene even if the granted projects went south.

Last but not least, problems could be a result of rushing to meet schedules and deadlines. Missing records and unauthorized work were uncovered at MTR’s Hung Hom station extension site after it reported serious delays. It is possible that work-quality and procedures were compromised in a bid to ensure speed of delivery.

The government should shorten or simplify the pre-construction procedures for public and private works, which could sometimes be lengthier than the actual construction works.

For the projects which entail unavoidable delays, the government or MTR should openly admit to the problem and make a public announcement, rather than try to unrealistically meet the construction deadlines by pressing the contractors.

As for the Legislative Council, lawmakers who serve the role of monitoring the government and approval of funding need to bear in mind that discussions cannot go on endlessly, as such tactics can cause immeasurable toll in terms of time and efficiency.

Technical or factual questions can be raised or filed for the officers responsible prior to meetings through written inquiries to shorten the actual time of meeting.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 10

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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