MTR maintenance staff lacked the knowledge to assess the effectiveness of their repairs resulting in a dramatic train derailment last year, the Hong Kong rail operator said on Tuesday.

A train bound for Hung Hom station derailed during morning rush hour last September, hurling three carriages off the tracks and forcing hundreds of passengers to evacuate. Eight were injured in the incident, two of whom were hospitalised for a couple of days. The East Rail line service resumed the following morning.

Hung Hom train derailment September 17
This aerial picture shows rescue workers standing on a railway track near a passenger train, after it derailed during rush hour outside Hung Hom station on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong on September 17, 2019. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

The MTR Corporation found that staff had replaced two worn-out timber track supports – or “sleepers” – with synthetic ones more than a month before the incident. But the adjustment created a “stiffness” between new and old sleepers on a curved part of the track, causing three screws to break under pressure. One of the rails subsequently shifted sideways, leading to the derailment.

The report concluded that the maintenance staff responsible should have relied more heavily on measurement data, rather than their experience, to make an informed decision about the success of their work. They had also failed to conduct strict follow-up measures “in accordance” with MTR procedures such as escalating the situation to senior management, it added.

“The Panel concluded that the maintenance team clearly had a knowledge gap of the effect of this atypical combination of circumstances to make an informed judgement on the scope, timeliness and effectiveness of remedial measures required to correct the dynamic track gauge,” the report read.

It added that such problems with synthetics sleepers have not been seen in a decade since their introduction.

train derail mtr hung hom

MTR Managing Director Adi Lau said in a statement that the MTR will learn from the errors identified: “On behalf of the Corporation, I sincerely apologise again to the passengers affected by the incident… We have learnt lessons from this incident and will spare no effort in putting in place the improvement measures recommended by the Panel to enhance our track maintenance.”

The investigation found no evidence of foul play despite a pattern of Hong Kong protesters targeting the MTR, which they considered to be under the control of the government, by throwing foreign objects onto train tracks.

A panel of MTR staff advised by experts from the United Kingdom, Australia and Hong Kong conducted the investigation into the derailment and made recommendations for improvements. The group submitted a report to the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department on February 14, which has completed its review.

jennifer creery

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.