MTR owes public an explanation over repeated station shutdowns

September 27, 2019 18:53
Riot police stand guard inside Sha Tin MTR Station as anti-government protesters gather outside on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

Despite Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s belated withdrawal of the extradition bill, the massive anti-government movement triggered by the legislative push has shown no signs of easing.

Meanwhile, the police force is imposing restrictions on our citizens’ freedom of peaceful assembly with the full and eager cooperation of MTR Corp. and “relevant government departments” by suspending services at relevant train stations prior to public events. Such moves are likely to backfire.

Granted a franchise to operate Hong Kong’s entire railway network, the MTR has been virtually controlling our city’s arteries over the years, with many local commuters depending on its train services on a daily basis.

Before the recent corner-cutting scandals arising from the Shatin-to-Central Link project came to light, the MTR had been enjoying global admiration for the world-class safety and efficiency of its railway operations.

In the past, whenever there was service interruption due to railroad accidents, the MTR management was often on full alert.

In recent weeks, however, the rail operator has been halting its services with increasing frequency even before any incident emerges. This has raised suspicions that the company management has changed its governing approach.

This apparent change could be traced to the night of Aug. 22, when the People’s Daily and the Global Times, the two official mouthpieces of Beijing, lashed out at the MTR for not cooperating with the Hong Kong police in enforcing the law and for providing free transport service for protesters to leave protest sites.

It was on that day that the MTR began to fall into line.

On Aug. 24, when a mass demonstration was scheduled to take place in Kwun Tong, the MTR announced a couple of hours before the start of the procession that it was going to temporarily suspend train services at a number of stations along the Kwun Tong Line to avoid possible damages to its facilities due to a public event.

Then on the following day, the MTR implemented the same measure in Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing districts, and again on the Hong Kong Island on Aug. 31 for the same reason.

And it just got worse. Last Saturday, the MTR once again announced that, after having assessed the potential risks and discussing with relevant government departments, it decided to temporarily close Tuen Mun and Yuen Long stations along the West Rail Line, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. respectively, because a mass march was scheduled to take place in Tuen Mun on that day. The reason it gave was to protect the safety of passengers and its staff.

However, the mass protest in Tuen Mun on Sept. 21 had been granted a letter of no objection by the police, although the duration was cut short by two hours. And, as such, I just couldn’t get my head around the MTR’s decision to shut down the Tuen Mun and Yuen Long stations on that day.

It seems to have become a routine practice for the MTR to shut down train stations “in response” to public events.

I have written an open letter to the company demanding an official explanation about its decision to suspend operations at the Tuen Mun and Yuen Long stations on Sept. 21.

Under section 9 (1) of the existing Mass Transit Railway Ordinance (Cap. 556), “[t]he Corporation shall maintain a proper and efficient service at all times during the franchise period in accordance with this Ordinance and the operating agreement”.

And so it must be asked: Did the MTR’s decision to close the Tuen Mun and Yuen Long stations on Sept. 21 due to a public event constitute a violation of its mandate to maintain “a proper and efficient service at all times”?

Apart from causing inconvenience to residents in the affected areas, could the MTR also have indirectly infringed on our citizens’ freedom of assembly, procession and demonstration protected under the Basic Law by denying participants in the Tuen Mun protest proper public transport service?

I believe the MTR owes both the citizens of Hong Kong and its small shareholders a satisfactory answer to these questions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 26

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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JC/CG

Legislative Council member from the education sector