Signalling glitch cripples Hong Kong train services

Commuters waiting to board an MTR train at Wan Chai station. A signalling system fault caused delays to Hong Kong's metro stations on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: TWITTER/LK154
The jam-packed Sheung Wan station in Hong Kong on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: TWITTER/MARCOGSYHK
Commuters affected by the glitch on Oct 16, 2018. The network's Island, Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan lines were operating at slower speeds due to the glitch, extending total journey time by 40 minutes, MTR Corp said on its website. PHOTO: TWITTER/GRAHAMTIER
There were long lines for buses after a signalling system fault caused delays to Hong Kong's metro trains on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: TWITTER/ANTHARROWSMITH

HONG KONG - The city's reliable train network was brought to its knees on Tuesday (Oct 16) morning after an "unprecedented" signalling glitch hit four key arteries, disrupting the routines of tens of thousands of commuters.

Train services slowed to a crawl for about six hours after the four main lines - Island, Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan and Tseung Kwan O - were severely disrupted. Normal train services resumed by about noon.

The rail operator, MTR Corporation, on Tuesday said it would set up an investigation committee and rope in global experts to find the exact cause of the glitch. It added that the investigation will take two months.

Addressing the media, Mr Jacob Kam, MTR's managing director of operations and mainland business, described the incident as "rare and unprecedented".

He said the operator had never encountered a problem of a similar nature since the signalling system was put in place in the 1990s and that "there was no mention of such a situation in our design and maintenance manuals".

"The uniqueness about this incident is that we believe a single failure should not affect more than just a sector in a line and sometimes it might affect the whole line but it has never affected more than one line, that's why it's so unique today and we need more time. We're calling in experts from around the world to help us identify the real cause," Mr Kam said.

The rail operator said it was also checking if Monday (Oct 15) night's system update of the Tsuen Wan line had caused the signalling issues across the four affected lines.

The South China Morning Post, quoting an MTR source, said the rail operator was looking into whether a power supply issue at its control centre in Tsing Yi led to the massive disruption.

"Staff are checking if the power supply at Tsing Yi went wrong, causing a failure of the computer system that manages the scheduling of trains," the source was quoted as saying.

Delays on the MTR services, which form the backbone of the city's public transport, unleashed travel chaos during rush hour in the financial hub, with trains jam-packed and platforms overcrowded with stranded commuters.

Many were forced to turn to alternative public transport and there were snaking queues at bus stations and taxi stands.

Ms Priscilla Quek, 27, was trying to get to Central from Wan Chai station but ended up waiting for the tram instead.

"I also checked Uber but it was really expensive, about five times the normal cost," she added.

The MTR delays created a knock-on effect on road traffic, clogging roads and causing traffic accidents, local media reported.

The rail operator apologised for the inconvenience.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan on Tuesday said the government, MTR's biggest shareholder, would follow up on the "special" situation and decide if the train operator would face tougher penalties for the crippling service delay.

Under an agreement between MTR and the Hong Kong government, the operator needs to pay a fine if there are delays of more than 31 minutes.

A 10-hour service disruption on the Kwun Tong line last year, which was also the result of a signalling fault, led to a HK$2 million (S$350,500) penalty, reported Bloomberg.

MTR Corp, whose trains carry about 5.8 million passengers on a weekday, said a team noticed the signalling failure at about 5.30am on Tuesday and issued a red alert at 6.20am to inform relevant departments and other public transport providers about the expected disruption.

Commenting on the situation, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said MTR bosses had to make sure the service they provided was reliable and met the needs of the people.

She called on employers to be "understanding" towards staff who reported for work late because of the MTR delays.

Shares of MTR fell 0.52 per cent to HK$38.60 by the end of the trading session.

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