Burning need clear for rail security

Editorial | 13 Feb 2017

Several people remained in critical condition last night in wake of an arson attack aboard an MTR train on the Tsuen Wan line that injured 19 on Friday.

The number of casualties could have been higher if passengers had panicked amid the smoke and flames.

The heroism and calmness shown by some of the passengers during the grueling two-minute journey were definitely critical in keeping the situation from getting worse.

The train was crowded and, according to witnesses, passengers urged each other to stay calm to avoid a stampede. Some urged others to get closer to the floor as smoke started spreading throughout the train.

They showed a fortitude and calmness that all Hongkongers should be proud of.

However, there were also people who, after the train finally pulled into Tsim Sha Tsui, were preoccupied with using their smartphones to film the episode - with reckless disregard for the fire, and without lending a helping hand to those injured.

It may not be an uncommon sight today, which is hard for me to come to grips with. If they weren't apathetic - bearing in mind that someone might have been on fire - they must be naive. It was a terrible sight.

Is this a digital-age syndrome, where compassion and common sense have flown out the door?

MTR Corporation Ltd has formed a working group to look into the incident, and is expected to deliver a preliminary report within a month.

So, what should it say in the report? Certainly, the attack brings with it a serious lesson one can learn from.

Public safety is of paramount importance. There are regulations dealing with the carriage of dangerous goods on the trains. But it would be impractical to check all passengers before they board the trains.

That said, there is an urgent need for the railway operator to take a fresh look at the issue.

This wasn't the first time a train had been subject to attack. Fourteen people were injured when a man set off a gas canister aboard a train on the way from Tsim Sha Tsui to Admiralty in 2004. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The corporation then said manpower would be increased to monitor dangerous items on the MTR system. While it's an open network carrying millions of passengers a day, can there be a smarter way of enforcing the rules on dangerous goods?

After the 2004 arson, it was recommended that all trains be fitted out with CCTV. It has been revealed after Friday's attack that half of the trains still aren't fitted with closed-circuit cameras. Can the upgrade program be accelerated?

It's clear from the latest incident that the passengers' reaction was essential to keeping casualty numbers low. Thus, should public education form an important piece of the contingency program, so that passengers know what to do in an emergency?

Furthermore, the incident renews concern over follow-up care for mental patients. Can there be more done about this?

What happened on Friday may have been an isolated incident, but our public transport network should always be prepared for any eventuality.

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