Pro-government legislator Michael Tien has said in the Legislative Council (LegCo) that Hong Kong’s rail operator knew early on that East Rail trains had entered the wrong tracks three times in May, because the new signalling system supplier – Siemens – could not deliver on promised processing speeds.

This led the MTR Corporation (MTRC) to call off the introduction of the new system in September shortly after media reports of trouble, and a day before its launch. The hiccup may further delay the new connection between the East Rail line and the Shatin-Central Link.

Michael Tien legco rountable
Michael Tien. Photo: LegCo.

Tien said the system had failed to process a huge amount of live traffic data recorded from a passing train within a few minutes, and consequently failed to signal to the oncoming train in time about traffic changes.

The failure caused trains headed for Lok Ma Chau to enter tracks towards Lo Wu on three occasions in May. The error was manually corrected.

“The thing that we think is a big deal, [MTRC] doesn’t think it’s a big deal,” Tien told HKFP. “When this goes live, they think there will be manual input from the operations room to supplement it.”

MTR East Rail

MTRC’s projects department knew about the failures early on during the testing phase, Tien said, although neither the company nor the government reported the incidents to the public until they were publicised by the media.

He accused the MTRC of a cover-up, and called on the government to establish a railroad development department promptly, to better oversee upcoming railroad projects: “If we’re trying to tell the public that we’re spending HK$100 million on this, and it goes down once in a thousand times, how do they think this is going to go down?”

Tien added that the middle management in MTRC’s projects department had kept projects director Roger Bayliss in the dark, until he learnt about it at the same time as the government from a reporter’s enquiry: “I’d call it professional arrogance. We need a government mandate that would oversee the departments directly.”

Frank Chan Fan Secretary of Transport and Housing
Frank Chan. Photo: LegCo.

In response to Tien’s questions, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan said the government would not comment on rumours, but was currently investigating the claims.

The government has asked the MTRC to submit a report within three months and will take follow-up action if the allegations were found to be true. In addition, Chan said that a budget for a railroad development department had been earmarked and would be submitted for legislative approval next year.

Chan did not elaborate on questions over whether this would further delay the launch of the East Rail’s cross-harbour section and if it would, for how long.

In a response to HKFP‘s enquiry, MTRC said the company understands the public’s concern over the deferral of the introduction of the signalling system. It has set up an investigation panel to look into the matter with help from appointed experts. The panel expects to submit its findings to the government in three months, and the findings with be made public in due course.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.