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Fears rise at cable car for opening day

Wendy Leung and Albert Wong

Monday, June 19, 2006

Safety fears over the Ngong Ping 360 cable car on Lantau following a breakdown that left 500 people stranded in motionless cabins for two hours Saturday have sparked an investigation and caused a possible delay to its grand opening.

The stoppage came ahead of the official opening, scheduled for the coming weekend, after the cable car's Australian operator, Skyrail-ITM (Hong Kong), had asked volunteers to join trial runs.

"I am not confident [of opening in time for Saturday], Skyrail chairman Ken Chapman said. "Any decision about the opening will be made after we complete an investigation."

He added there will be no trial runs before the investigation is completed.

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Managing director Bill Calderwood kicked off a 30-day countdown to the grand opening of Hong Kong's latest tourist attraction last month, but since then winds and now an unsolved "programming issue" have halted preparations for the opening.

A Skyrail spokeswoman said those stranded were at no time in any danger.

Chapman Sunday did not know whether tickets were still being sold for the official opening but said there is a refund system allowing ticket holders to ride the cable car on another day.

In the incident, about 500 MTR employees and their families were trapped in mid-air when the cable cars ground to a halt at about 3.30pm. The cable car is developed and financed by the MTR.

Some of those stranded said the emergency phones did not work. The incident came a day after a similar trial run was delayed for 45 minutes.

Chapman said there were no doubts about passengers' safety at all during the latest incident but apologized for the "inconvenience" caused to those who were trapped for two hours. He stressed the trials were meant to help identify problems.

An investigation conducted with the assistance of the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department is expected to finish today.

"The incident involved a problem with the system that controls spacing of the cableway cabins in the Ngong Ping Skyrail Terminal and led to a delay in operations," the Skyrail spokeswoman said.

Skyrail also upset some of its travel trade partners from the mainland.

Two travel agents visiting from Guangzhou, who only gave their names as Li and Wu, said they were "shocked" to learn Sunday's trial run was cancelled only after they had arrived at the Tung Chung terminal.

"No one told us it had been cancelled," Li said.

Wu said: "It affects our confidence in the company. If their arrangements are so bad, how can I bring our clients here again?"

Li, a travel agent from Shenzhen, said many mainland travel agents did not know about the problems.

Li called Skyrail before she arrived.

"The call was diverted to voicemail, which asked us to go to their Web site, but we are not used to checking everything on the Internet though." she said.

In response to the agents' criticisms, Chapman said that "the news was widely reported Sunday. We couldn't notify all individuals, because it just happened yesterday."

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yiu-chung said Skyrail has promised to decide quickly if the cable car will open Saturday as scheduled.

"Many travel agents have booked tickets for the opening day. The company will refund the tickets if the opening is postponed," Tung said.

A Tourism Commission spokesman said whether the cable car opens on schedule would depend on the outcome of the investigation.


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