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Following is a question by the Dr Hon Lau Wong-fat and a reply by the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, in the Legislative Council on March 19:
It has been reported that train services were disrupted for several times last year due to malfunctioning, and quite a number of passengers were late for school or work due to delay in their journeys. Recently, such failure incidents have occurred more frequently. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether it has considered appointing an independent committee or rail transport consultant to conduct a comprehensive study on the operational problems of the railways in Hong Kong, including:
(a) whether the transfer of the operation of the railways (including the East Rail, West Rail, Light Rail, etc.) operated by the then Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation to the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) by the Government, which has resulted in MTRCL having to concurrently manage a number of railways, has exerted excessive pressure on the operation of MTRCL; and
(b) whether the operation of railways outside the territory by MTRCL has distracted its attention away from the local operations, resulting in its neglect of operational problems of the railways in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is one of the least private car-dependent big cities in the world. Of the approximate 13 million passenger trips every day, 90% are made by public transport among which rides on the railway account for about 40%. Therefore, the operation of a safe, reliable and efficient railway service is paramount to our public transport system.
With respect to train service reliability, the number of incidents of 8 minutes or above of the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) was 143 last year, the lowest since the rail merger in December 2007. Despite not showing any downward trend in the safety and reliability of MTR train service in accordance with the overall statistics, the Government considers that, under the service-oriented premise, immediate and in-depth investigation into every train service incident must be carried out by MTRCL, followed by improvement measures to prevent future recurrence. Being the railway safety regulator, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) will also conduct investigations and follow up with MTRCL. Meanwhile, MTRCL also needs to take actions to alleviate crowdedness inside train compartments during peak hours.
As the causes of the recent major service disruption incidents were respectively attributable to the installation of overhead lines and the quality of insulators used, the successive occurrence of these incidents may be a sign of systemic defects of the overhead line system. As such, we believe that an in-depth review by an independent expert is necessary for greater reassurance for the public. The Government agrees with MTRCL’s engagement of an overseas independent expert to conduct a comprehensive review on MTR’s overhead line system, covering key aspects like technical specifications, procurement, quality control, installation and repairs/maintenance.
In parallel, EMSD will actively participate in MTRCL’s tests of the insulators and verify the findings. EMSD will also engage an independent expert to evaluate the outcome of MTRCL’s expert review. The participation of double independent experts in the review will ensure an in-depth, comprehensive, objective and professional study. In the light of the findings of EMSD’s independent expert, the Government will decide whether there is a need to expand the scope of the review to cover other areas of the MTR network.
As the current railway safety regulatory regime allows for the engagement of international and independent experts to assist in studies and reviews, it is not necessary to appoint an independent committee or rail transport consultant.
My reply to Dr Hon Lau Wong-fat’s question is as follows:
(a) Under the specific arrangements of the rail merger in December 2007, the staff and management (except the Chief Executive Officer and some administrative support staff totalling less than 10 employees) of the then Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC), their professional knowledge and experience, together with KCRC’s assets, were all taken over by MTRCL. Not only has the railway network managed by MTRCL been enhanced after the merger, its professional manpower, knowledge and experience has also been enriched. Thus, the problem of MTRCL not being able to concurrently manage a number of railways does not exist. On the contrary, after the rail merger, the overall competitiveness of the railway service has been enhanced and synergies realised through integration of manpower resources and complementary development of strengths between the two corporations. This not only enhances the service quality but is also conducive to the continued business growth of MTRCL.
Responsible for train operations and repairs/maintenance, the post-merger Operations Department has maintained its manning level at about 8 000 to 9 000. As at January this year, its staffing has exceeded 10 000. MTRCL will, in the light of the operating need of existing railway lines and the commissioning of new railway lines, employ additional manpower from time to time. In fact, the number of managerial and frontline staff responsible for per kilometre rail length was 73 in late 2013, the highest ever when compared to approximately 60 before the rail merger in 2007.
(b) The development of businesses outside Hong Kong (including those in the Mainland, Europe and Australia) helps MTRCL expand its sources of revenue. Take 2013 as an example, the profits from Mainland and overseas businesses accounted for around 6% of the Corporation’s underlying business profits. Besides, MTRCL can enrich its global management experience by exploring businesses outside Hong Kong, bringing the corporate branding effect into play. At present, all profits generated by Mainland and overseas operations are included in the Corporation’s underlying business profits, part of which are shared with passengers in Hong Kong vide the “10% Same Day Second Trip Discount” under the “profit-sharing” scheme introduced after the review on the Fare Adjustment Mechanism of MTRCL in 2013.
That said, MTRCL must pursue its businesses outside Hong Kong under the premise of keeping its primary focus on the local railway service. I have always, at the Board of MTRCL, reminded the Corporation not to put the cart before the horse and explore Mainland and overseas businesses at the expense of local service. MTRCL undertakes that the development of local businesses will not be adversely affected by its pursuit of businesses in the Mainland or abroad. In fact, the Corporation’s staff in the Mainland and overseas are mostly recruited domestically instead of being deployed from Hong Kong.
At present, MTRCL has about 16 000 employees in Hong Kong, among which less than 1% are responsible for Mainland and overseas businesses. These 130 or so employees are mostly middle managerial staff. MTRCL employs about 8 700 employees in the Mainland and about 7 000 employees in Europe and Australia.