Hong Kong’s metro system should review its protocols for Typhoon 9 signals, a former chief of the city’s observatory has said after the suspension of MTR overground trains left thousands of commuters and tourists stranded for hours during Typhoon Koinu on Sunday.

rainstorm black rain
A train pulling into Tai Wai MTR station on Sept. 8, 2023 as a rainstorm hit the city. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Shun Chi-ming, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO), wrote in a Chinese op-ed in Ming Pao that the MTR should decide whether to halt services based on the “actual weather situation,” rather than automatically suspending services when the Typhoon 9 signal is in force.

The MTR’s current policy is to pause overground train services once the Observatory issues the Typhoon 9 signal, Shun said, a protocol that dates back to July 2012 when a felled tree damaged a cable near Tai Po MTR station as Typhoon Vicente hit the city.

“But it is worth noting that the situation then and on Sunday was very different,” Shun wrote, explaining that the overall wind force of Koinu was much weaker compared to Vicente due to its “compact circulation.”

Typhoon Koinu
Typhoon Koinu skirts Hong Kong on Sunday, October 8, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The HKO gave just a 15-minute warning before issuing the T9 signal for Typhoon Koinu on Sunday, as the city braced for strong rains and winds.

Scenes of commuters stuck at MTR stations circulated on social media on Sunday evening after the railway company suspended overhead train services, citing safety concerns. MTR staff distributed water and biscuits while they waited.

The Airport Express was also halted. At the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport, travellers waited in long lines for taxis to take them to the city.

Shum, who headed the Observatory for almost nine years until retiring in 2020, also said it was difficult to forecast T9 signals well in advance.

Hong Kong MTR
The MTR Corporation logo. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“When the eye of the storm is directly hitting Hong Kong, destructive winds can happen very quickly. Therefore, we should not expect that the Observatory can give… [advance] warnings like it can for a T8 signal,” he wrote.

The T9 warning for Typhoon Koinu was in place for almost five hours on Sunday before being lowered to a T8 signal just before midnight.

When Super Typhoon Saola struck Hong Kong in early September, the Observatory issued warnings two-and-a-half-hours in advance. But there were no warnings ahead of the T9 signals for Super Typhoon Mangkhut and Typhoon Higos in 2018 and 2020 respectively, according to local news outlet The Collective.

Hong Kong has been hit by a series of extreme weather events in recent weeks which experts have said are linked to the climate crisis. A week after Super Typhoon Saola, record-breaking rainfall drenched the city with cars stranded on flooded roads and an entire MTR station exit submerged. The city has also seen its hottest summer on record.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.