Hong Kong will establish a railways department by 2023 to improve supervision of project delivery and planning by the city’s rail giant, which has been plagued by construction woes, cost overruns and delays over the last three years.
But former rail boss Michael Tien Puk-sun, who has long called for such an office, questioned why it could not be set up immediately.
The proposal came almost two years after a commission of inquiry investigating problems involving the Sha Tin-Central link suggested creating a new director position for rail development to better monitor rail project construction.
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According to a Legislative Council document presented on Friday night, the new department will implement a string of strategies, including creating a new board – comprising officials from the government and MTR Corporation as well as external members – and an independent expert advisory committee to ensure better monitoring of projects.
Officials said that while they hoped to set up the branch as soon as possible, they proposed seeking approval from Legco’s Finance Committee in the next legislative session, given the government’s current financial situation and chief executive’s vision laid out in her 2020 policy address.
The deficit is estimated to balloon to HK$300 billion (US$38.69 billion) this financial year, with fiscal reserves dropping to about HK$800 billion.
“The enhanced monitoring and control strategies requiring additional manpower will be implemented in tandem with the establishment of the railways department in [the] 2022-23 financial year, before the projects under the Railway Development Strategy 2014 enter the construction stage progressively from 2023 onwards,” they wrote in the document.
The 2014 strategy recommended seven new railway schemes to better link different parts of the city, including the western extension of the South Island Line, which would cost tens of billions of Hong Kong dollars.
In Friday’s proposal, officials pointed to the cost overruns and the delays of the cross-border express rail link and the Sha Tin-Central link, as well as a construction scandal at its Hung Hom station.
During an inquiry, it was confirmed that some steel bars had been cut short during installation when they could not be screwed into couplers on the platform, in a scandal that engulfed contractors, the MTR Corp and the government.
“Moreover, recent incidents related to [the] signalling system and operating railways also put the performance of MTR Corporation Limited in the limelight,” they said.
Their proposal would transfer the existing rail duties under the Highways Department and the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department to the new branch under the Transport and Housing Bureau.
“The new railways department will serve as the single point of responsibility in the government in respect to the whole life cycle of railways in the planning, construction, operation and asset replacement stages,” officials said.
“The proposed amalgamation will bring about synergy effects by pooling together the government’s railway expertise and integrating specialist support in different engineering fields.”
The department’s other duties would include introducing a new safety review process to safeguard the operational safety of critical infrastructure and creating mechanisms that would require the MTR Corp to provide early alerts about major issues to the government.
Officials proposed creating three permanent directorate posts and converting one supernumerary directorate post to a permanent position, with the average annual staffing costs, including salaries, expected to be about HK$14.4 million.
Another 94 non-directorate posts were also proposed to be added to the department, with the average staffing costs estimated to be about HK$111 million a year. On top of these, there would also be redeployment from other existing government branches.
Tien, a pro-establishment lawmaker and former Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation chairman, said he had pushed for the creation of a railways department almost three years ago.
“Although it’s late, it’s better than never,” he said. “But why does the establishment have to wait until the next administration? The current administration has rights to ask the next administration. Does this [delay] have other hidden meanings?”