Chaos calms but train collision shakes consumer confidence in Hong Kong’s MTR

Commuters using their phones as they ride on an MTR underground train in Hong Kong, on Jan 29, 2019.
Commuters using their phones as they ride on an MTR underground train in Hong Kong, on Jan 29, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG – There was less chaos during Hong Kong’s Tuesday morning (March 19) rush hour, even as services between Central and Admiralty stations on the Tsuen Wan line remained suspended for a second day following Monday’s collision between two trains on a trial run.

Platforms at the two business district stations were crowded though shorter queues were reported elsewhere as many passengers took buses to get across to the main island. 

This was less chaotic than Monday’s rush hour when commuters were caught by surprise, did not know how to get to work and there were no MTR staff on site to guide them to alternative transportation.

Commuter King Leung, 35, said although there were more people than usual at Admiralty trying to take the Hong Kong Island line to Central, “today it seems like it’s back to regular”.

“There’s not a huge line, not one of those rush hour lines in Admiralty you see on Twitter where people fill the platform.”

He said there were more commuters taking the Hong Kong Island line to get from Admiralty to Central but it was to be “expected”. 

Commuter Sandeep Hathiramani, 31, said the service disruption has made it inconvenient for him to get to meetings on and off Hong Kong Island.

The Tsuen Wan line is one of four lines passengers can take to cross over from Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui area and further north.

Both Mr Leung and Hathiramani are among those who are worried that the signalling fault was not caught in earlier tests.

Mr Hathiramani said the silver lining was that the casualty was minor and the signalling system” will get a good review before roll out”.

But Mr Leung said: “I don’t know why they can have the problem twice? I’m in software, I know it’s a software issue but the way that they’re handling it is a little bit appalling. 

“This should have been caught during a software simulation, not at a hardware testing environment. It seems like they’re closing in about to deploy and it’s worrying.”

Public confidence in Hong Kong’s usually trusty rail operator has been shaken after two of its trains crashed into each other during a test of its new signalling system that was to be launched in the later half of this year. The test was carried out while the network was closed to the public.

In a televised interview on Tuesday, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam said the government will not rush to roll out the new signal system on the city’s rail network until it is proven safe.

The government will also be cautious with the scandal-plagued Sha Tin-Central link, which is the new line to be opened within the MTR network . It will use a similar signal system.

“I would like to reiterate public safety is of primary concern. So we will not rush to open the Sha Tin-Central link or put in place this new signal system until we are assured of their safety.” 

The new Sha Tin-Central rail link around Hung Hom station, costing HK$97.1 billion (S$16.7 billion), is the city’s most expensive rail project but it has been plagued with allegations of shoddy work. The eight stations on the Tai Wai to Hung Hom section of the link were expected to go into service in the middle of this year but their launch now looks likely to be delayed.

The collision that occurred in the wee hours of Monday morning on the Tsuen Wan line during the trial run is the first such incident in 40 years of MTR’s operations. 

The rail operator had said the signalling fault stemmed from a software glitch and that the software manufacturer, Thales, had apologised in a Twitter statement on Monday night.

Thales said it was “deeply sorry” that a driver had been hurt, adding that it would support the investigation into the collision.

On Tuesday morning, MTR operations director Adi Lau Tin-shing said that one of the trains had been hit in the middle, separating it into two parts which created space for repair workers to put the derailed carriage of the other train back on the rail for removal.

He said it was difficult to set a timeline as to when services between the two stations on Tsuen Wan line will resume, adding that MTR is meeting with the contractor today to find a better and faster way to solve this issue.

The firm has mobilised about 100 repair workers for each shift, given the complexity of the matter.