The MTR Corporation said it will pay an HK$8 million penalty for service delays on October 16, which saw four train lines suffering simultaneous delays.

In a report submitted to the government on Wednesday, the rail operator said the delays were caused by an incompatibility between two sets of signalling systems, provided by Alstom and Siemens.

The Alstom system had an automatic reset function but the Siemens system needed to be reset manually. MTR staff was “unaware” of the discrepancy, and when the Alstom system reset itself, it led to the two systems being out of sync.

As a result, during the morning rush hour of October 16, commuters on four MTR lines –Tsuen Wan Line, Kwun Tong Line, Island Line and Tseung Kwan O Line – experienced unprecedented delays for over six hours.

“Since the four lines are connected, the inconsistent re-initialisation situation led to repeated re-synchronisation causing instability in sector computers,” the report read.

The report added that the difference between the two systems “were not known to the operators and maintainers, nor were they explicitly described in the Operation and Maintenance Manuals.”

MTR Operations Director Adi Lau (left). Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

MTR Operations Director Adi Lau said on Wednesday that the delays on the four train lines should be counted as separate incidents, and that by law MTR will pay a HK$2 million penalty per line.

The penalty will take the form of fare concessions offered to passengers next year, Lau added.

Staff ‘unaware’

Following the October incident, MTR launched an investigation with its senior management and three external experts.

One of the signalling experts, Michael Hamlyn, said MTR was unaware of the software incompatibility because “there was no documentation that described the automatic re-initialisation function of the Alstom equipment.”

MTR installed the Alstom system in 1996 and the Siemens system in 2001. The two systems are synchronised through a software counter, and the counter needs to be reset when it reaches a ceiling figure.

Both systems had never been wholly reset since they were first installed.

The report on Wednesday recommended that MTR review and implement a maintenance program, which will manually reset the software counters before they reach the ceiling figure. It also recommended forming a team of experts to enhance software integration and performance.

Lawmaker Michael Tien, a member of the legislature’s railways subcommittee, said the situation was “understandable” because it had no precedent.

Michael Tien. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“If something is only done once every ten years, that becomes a problem,” Tien said, referring to the need to reset the signalling system.

“Who will remember? Even if they remember to do it, they won’t remember how.”

Tien added that he was still confident in MTR’s daily operations, and recommended improving the system so it gives warnings ahead of time before it resets.

Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.