Anger as East Rail chaos strands thousands

Top News | Sum Lok-kei and Phoenix Un 12 Jan 2018

Chaos marred the East Rail Line as train services were suspended for two hours during the morning rush hours yesterday due to a signaling fault that left 14 trains dead in the tracks.

Ten of thousands of commuters traveling from Lo Wu to Hung Hom between 9.30am and 11.30am were left stranded. Train services gradually resumed once the signaling system was up and running on a back-up server.

MTRCL head of operations Francis Li Shing-kee said the East Rail Line's signaling system began experiencing problems at around 9am. Even after switching to a back-up server and having manually restarted the servers, the signaling system fault persisted.

"We estimated the [repair] work would carry on for some time and, to be careful, the operations control center suspended train services on the whole East Rail Line at around 9.25am," he said.

While Li said the signaling system began functioning normally on the back-up server, he did not give further details.

After the last train last night, an investigation was started to find the cause of the problem. Li refused to say if the incident was related to recent upgrades to the line's signaling system.

According to the company's website, work had been done to install a "more advanced" signaling system on the East Rail Line and tests began in late 2016.

Li apologized for the stoppage and thanked passengers for their cooperation.

During the incident, 14 East Rail Line trains were stopped and three cross-border trains were also affected.

Passengers at Lo Wo said they were stranded with limited options to proceed with their journeys. They had the option of returning to Shenzhen or queuing for a connecting bus heading towards Sheung Shui.

Some at Kowloon Tong Station complained that connecting buses only arrived an hour after train services were suspended. However, when the buses did arrive, people were seen quarreling after some passengers skipped the queue.

A passenger said his train stopped in a tunnel between Tai Wai and Kowloon Tong stations, leading to him being trapped for 40 minutes without adequate ventilation.

Legislative Council railway panel chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun said there were two possible causes for the signaling fault - a hardware failure along the rail or a server malfunction in the control room.

He said the latter was more likely as service on the line resumed quickly. But he was concerned that the system initially ran poorly on the back-up server.

"Why is a back-up server called a back-up server when it also becomes unstable?" he asked. "Is it because maintenance check procedures are in need of improvement? Or as I've suspected, they are changing the entire [signaling] system along the East Rail Line without stopping daily operation?"

Tien said switching the entire signaling system to a new one without temporarily suspending train services was unprecedented.

"Every night when they work on the new system and then switch back to the old system, there is some risk," he said.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, who was among those trapped yesterday morning, criticized the MTRCL for its "chaotic arrangements."

"I boarded the train at 9.20am, and left at 9.45am without seeing any staff informing us what shuttle buses were available. I don't believe they can handle that many passengers," Lam said.

Gary Chan Hak-kan of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong demanded Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan review the city's railway-oriented transport policy.

"The case shows that other public transportation cannot handle the crowd whenever the MTR breaks down," he said.

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