The MTR Corporation said the serious service disruption on the East Rail Line Thursday morning was caused by the failure of both the primary and backup servers of the signaling system.

Train service on the East Rail line was suspended during the morning rush for about two hours, affecting tens of thousands of passengers.

Francis Li, MTR’s head of operating, said around 9am that the signal system encountered a problem as its server was not working smoothly, and the situation did not improve after switching to a backup system.

MTR East Rail

“We had to restart the server manually, but it was not successful. Since the operation needed some time, for safety, the control centre suspended the whole East Rail line around 9:25am,” Li said.

Li apologised on behalf of the company and said there will be a deep and careful review Thursday night after service hours.

MTR East Rail

Li said 14 trains were stuck between stations. Passengers on two trains near the Fanling and Fo Tan stations opened the train doors and walked along the tracks to a station. Li said because of the situation, staff had to inspect the entire line to make sure no one was on the tracks before the trains could move again.

“When train doors are opened, the trains cannot move,” he said. “The air-conditioning, lighting and broadcast systems on the two trains were still working. It was not necessary for passengers to open the doors and leave at that time,” Li said.

MTR East Rail

The MTR Corporation must pay a fine of HK$3 million for reducing passengers’ fares, according to government guidelines.

Lawmaker Michael Tien, the former chair of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, suggested that there should be another backup system.

Michael Tien
Michael Tien. Photo: LegCo.

“Why would a backup server also become unstable? Was it because of maintenance check, where the procedures need to be improved?” he said. “Or whether there’s other factors, which is what I suspect?”

He questioned whether the MTR changing the signaling system along the East Rail line without stopping daily operations may have been a contributing factor.

“In the history of rail operation in the whole world as far as I know, there’s not been any city or any rail company capable of switching an entire line’s signaling system to a new one without temporarily suspending the service. In Hong Kong we cannot afford to do that.”

Lam Cheuk-ting
Lam Cheuk-ting. File Photo: In-Media.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, a member of the Panel on Transport, said he was furious about the incident.

He said when the suspension occurred, he was also stuck on a train. He said the problem was very serious if the backup server did not work smoothly: “The MTRC has to give an answer as soon as possible.”

He also criticised the MTRC for being slow in arranging buses and did not provide clear instructions for affected passengers to take other means of backup transport.

He said when the panel discussed changing the signal system, the MTRC said it would take ten years: “This is too long. The current signal system has aged seriously – it cannot provide a stable service, it should be changed as soon as possible.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.