HK govt 'told about train cracks before it awarded contract'

People at one of the entrances to Central MTR station in Hong Kong in 2010.
People at one of the entrances to Central MTR station in Hong Kong in 2010.PHOTO: ST FILE

The controversy over China-made trains procured by both Singapore and Hong Kong has spread, as it transpired that the Hong Kong government was informed of the cracks in Singapore's trains as early as January last year.

That did not stop MTR Corporation (MTRC) from inking a HK$6 billion (S$1 billion) contract six months later with the same manufacturer, Qingdao Sifang Locomotive and Rolling Stock Company.

MTRC said last night it knew of the cracks in the Singapore trains in 2014 but was assured by SMRT that they do not compromise safety.

Hong Kong-based news portal FactWire yesterday released e-mail correspondence that indicated that a whistle-blower had sought to alert Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung to the problems with the SMRT trains.

In an initial e-mail message to Dr Cheung's office on Jan 30, 2015, the sender warned of "potential irregularities" in how MTRC was tendering the contract to replace 93 subway trains on the city's urban lines.

In a detailed appendix, the person wrote of a "Singapore C151A train underframe sub-floor cracking problem".

"Thousands of brackets had been added... as a temporary measure to ensure the safety integrity of the underframe sub-floor member to prevent the equipment from falling onto the track. (The) ultimate solution will require the fleet to be recalled back to Qingdao for replacement of the sub-floor."

Singapore confirmed this turn of events this week after FactWire released photographs showing trains being shipped last month to China for repairs. "Hairline cracks" were found in 26 of 35 trains delivered.

Further e-mail messages were exchanged between the whistle- blower and the bureau. The latter said on June 18 that it had referred the matter to the relevant departments and asked MTRC to "examine the problems". But less than a month later, on July 9, MTRC awarded the contract to Qingdao Sifang.

When asked on Wednesday about Singapore's experience, Dr Cheung said he was not aware of the matter. Yesterday, he acknowledged that his bureau had indeed received the e-mail messages but he himself had not read them.

The FactWire report also queried the nine months MTRC took for the tendering process, as opposed to 14 or 15 months previously.

The revelations feed into speculation that Hong Kong's government and MTRC are eager to ingratiate themselves with Beijing by awarding big projects to mainland companies. Industry experts said this is unlikely, given the "strict" rules that companies here have to abide by.

University of Hong Kong transport researcher James Wang Jixian said the deciding factor in awarding the bid would have been quality and cost factors. "There are problems with quality control... but these are not absolutely critical - such as the cracks in the Singapore trains - because the core technology is there. And when your price is one-third that of others, buyers may be willing to accept that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'HK govt 'told about train cracks before it awarded contract''. Print Edition | Subscribe