Hong Kong’s embattled rail operator is set to further cut services on three lines including the Airport Express, after the Covid-19 outbreak caused passenger numbers to plummet by more than half, the Post has learned.
Starting next week, Airport Express services will run every half-hour, Tung Chung line services will run every 10 to 12 minutes, and Disneyland Resort line services will be suspended, Hong Kong Federation of Railway Trade Unions vice-chairman Tam Kin-chiu said.
“This will be another round of reduction of services for the MTR, as the company has suffered devastating blows to its business over the past few months because of the pandemic. I am told that these three lines have been hit to an unimaginable level,” he said.
In late February, the MTR Corporation started to reduce rail services during non-peak hours, weekends and public holidays, to cope with falling demand, with intervals between trains extended to up to eight minutes for urban lines, 15 minutes on the Airport Express, and 20 minutes on the Disneyland Resort line. Disneyland has been temporarily closed since January 26, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which by Friday had infected 845 people in the city, with four related deaths.
The MTR Corp had already taken a major hit with the suspension of cross-border train services from late January, while its domestic services suffered as school closures and work-from-home arrangements left many trains operating far below capacity.
Tam said MTR Corp managers told him that patronage had dropped by more than half on average over the past few months, particularly on the three lines which now face reductions.
“My biggest concern is the staff’s welfare. I expressed to the management that I hope any reduction of service won’t affect the income of the MTR staff. The MTR could suspend recruitment and resort to other measures, such as clearing of staff’s annual leave, to rein in costs,” he said.
Tam said he also warned rail chiefs that service reductions could tarnish the corporation’s image. “Any reduction of service will easily attract criticism, and may cause overcrowding on trains, during the outbreak. The MTR Corp should handle these measures with care,” he said.
In February, domestic ridership on the MTR plummeted to a 13-year low of 71.4 million, down 43 per cent from 126 million a year earlier.
The Airport Express also took a severe beating in February, with passenger numbers plunging almost 72 per cent year on year, from 1.3 million to 374,000 – the lowest figure since May 2003, when the city was hit by an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
The MTR Corp had already suffered massive blows to its operations and revenue because of the months-long anti-government protests, triggered in June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
The embattled firm already warned of more bad news in 2020, with the unrest and the unfolding coronavirus outbreak expected to shave HK$1.3 billion off its recurrent business profit in the first two months of this year.