Blame game can't fix line problem

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Aug 2017

MTR operators were forced to go slow on the Kwun Tong Line for 10 hours on Saturday, in what's asserted to be the longest service disruption in MTR Corp Ltd's history.

The fault was laid on a signaling failure. While signal issues are common for a growing railway system, engineers can fix the issues quickly most of the time to restore normal service. It was somehow different this time.

Fortunately, train services were maintained albeit at a slower frequency. But it wasn't really that slow: trains largely arrived every four to five minutes during the affected period compared with every 2 to 4 minutes on a normal weekend, which should be acceptable.

Had the incident occurred elsewhere, the service would have been regarded as normal. In London, for example, underground rail routes can even be closed for several weekends to allow for major repairs or system upgrades, whereas in the SAR, this would be impossible.

So let's be fair to MTRCL. By international standards, it's providing a remarkable service in view of the length and complexity of its network.

In the latest incident, several things should be noted:

First, the railway had its first line built nearly four decades ago, and the system as a whole is still expanding. Compared to its coverage back then, the network is now about five times the length. While newly added routes are young, others are getting old, and there are bound to be problems of various kinds when a system ages.

Two, there are always calls by politicians to penalize the railway operator whenever an issue surfaces.

Following Saturday's "delay," they were quick to calculate that MTRCL should be fined HK$20 million or more as a result. Some suggested paring the management's bonuses to the incident. While it's always easy to demand punishment, it isn't necessarily meaningful to do so all the time.

Let's not forget the railway corporation is 70 percent owned by the government. If it's to pay HK$20 million or more for Saturday's service disruption, would that not amount to robbing the public purse? Ultimately, it's still the government footing the bill.

While I doubt a different management would have handled the matter better, the problem cannot be solved by pointing fingers. A positive mindset would be more helpful.

Third, MTRCL chief executive Lincoln Leung Kwok-kuen said the company is forming a high-level panel to look into the incident, with external experts invited to join the probe. The panel is expected to establish the issues and causes, and recommend solutions to avoid similar issues in future.

Should the panel be given a wider ambit than that?

As said before, the Kwun Tong Line opened in 1979, followed by Tsuen Wan Line in 1982, and Island Line in 1985. While it could involve a fortune to upgrade those lines, costs shouldn't stop the corporation from performing a health review of the system.

If it isn't part of the high-level panel's job description to oversee such a body check, it should be asked to do so.

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