The Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation has promised a thorough review of its safety systems after a blown transformer disrupted the morning commute for more than 1,000 West Rail passengers Wednesday.
This latest snag - which forced 650 angry passengers to walk about two kilometers through a dark Tai Lam Tunnel and others to find another way to the office - adds to the woes that have plagued the railway over the past 12 months. Last year the railway operator - which is merging with MTR Corporation - came under heavy fire for cracks discovered in the undercarriages of its trains.
According to eyewitness accounts, passengers riding the Tsuen Wan- bound train Wednesday heard a loud bang at about 9.13am and saw smoke pouring from the top of one of the train compartments.
The carriages and the tunnel were filled with thick smoke, according to some accounts. Passengers panicked.
The KCRC confirmed the conductor heard a loud bang and received reports from passengers over the train's intercom about smoke in the carriage. A spokesman for the Fire Department said the fire was quickly put out, but at least 11 people were taken to hospital. All were discharged, except for one male passenger who is listed as satisfactory.
Passengers walked for nearly half an hour to Tsuen Wan West station. The delay lasted for more than three hours, with regular service through the tunnel resuming just before 1pm.
Senior officials at the KCRC said the fire was caused by oil leaking from a transformer on the roof of a carriage.
"We have had no such incident since these trains arrived in 2002, so we are not certain why that happened," said Li Yan-tai, a senior director for the KCRC. "We will be doing a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident."
KCRC chief executive James Blake apologized for the inconvenience and discomfort caused, saying he was puzzled by the failure. "Transformers don't fail, so when something like this happens, it's unexpected. We will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this."
Blake said there are 86 such transformers across the KCRC's three rail lines, and promised to have each one inspected in time for the morning commute today. The railway will also check the transformers daily until the reason for the failure is discovered.
Experts from the Japanese manufacturer of the transformers are expected to arrive in Hong Kong today to aid the investigation, he added.
But Blake declined to identify the company, saying only its transformers were widely used around the world.
He said the transformers were meant to last a long time, and he would have the Japanese company replace them if they were found to be faulty.
But Blake, a civil engineer by training, stressed such incidents are extremely rare, saying it was the first time something like this has happened.
He promised to make the cause known as quickly as possible - perhaps as soon as after the Lunar New Year - but results could be delayed if laboratory tests are required.
He also pledged to make passenger safety a priority for the railway.
Blake defended the KCRC's evacuation procedures, noting that passengers were moved smoothly and swiftly to emergency exits after the incident.
"The risk to passengers was kept to an absolute minimum," Blake said. "That's a good thing that comes out of this - to see that our standards are internationally high."
But the government's Environment, Transport and Works Bureau expressed grave concern about the case, and ordered the KCRC to submit a report as quickly as possible.
According to the government, officials arrived at the scene immediately to inspect the situation.
They have asked the KCRC to check the power supply for its fleet, and to confirm the incident was not caused by failure of equipment inside the tunnel before approving resumption of service through the tunnel.
Initial investigations by the Hong Kong Railway Inspectorate and the Transport Department show the transformer short-circuited and caused fire and heavy smoke.
"The potential transformer in this incident was installed on top of the train carriage. The function of the potential transformer is to check whether electricity is supplied to the train. After the potential transformer short-circuited, the electricity supply to the train was automatically cut off for ensuring train safety," a joint statement said.
"In light of the incident, the HKRI has immediately requested the KCRC to complete a comprehensive fleet check on all potential transformers of the trains of the same model before commencing train service [today].
"The KCRC has to report the fleet check outcome to the HKRI and to prove all potential transformers function properly before putting the trains into service."
The inspectorate has also asked the KCRC and the transformer supplier to investigate the cause of the short-circuit as soon as possible and submit a detailed report for follow-up action.
Meanwhile, legislators were upset. Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, chairman of the Legislative Council transport panel, said repeated incidents were unacceptable. "We need an objective measure so we can evaluate the effectiveness of safety measures under the newly merged railway," Cheng said.
Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who represents the transport sector in Legco, said a full-scale inspection was conducted on the transformer in mid-2006, with a visual inspection done at the end of the year. "Our question is - despite these checks, why did this still happen?" Lau said. "Obviously, the problem here is deeper than these two inspections could detect. We need a report as soon as we can, and even an interim report if possible, so that the public can feel at ease."
But both Cheng and Lau noted the government and media were informed of the incident within eight minutes of the system failure - within the standardized time frame. "The contingency measures kicked in, and they worked well," Lau noted. Cheng said, however, what was more important was that future incidents be prevented.
Edmund Leung Kwong-ho, a former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, said such incidents were rare. He suspected the transformer probably suffered from a manufacturing flaw, but said since the technology was well developed and understood, it likely did not require a full replacement across the entire KCRC system.