Hong Kong’s embattled rail giant has come under fire from residents over its decision to suspend train services and close stations along the Kwun Tong line before a protest march in the area is set to kick off.
The MTR Corporation said trains running between Choi Hung and Tiu Keng Leng stations would be suspended temporarily from noon on Saturday until further notice to ensure the safety of passengers and staff.
The Kwun Tong march kicks off as about a thousand people show up for the approved event, with numbers still growing. pic.twitter.com/lBwuaO6qQ8
— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) August 24, 2019
Protesters gathered on Tsun Yip Street in Kwun Tong for a march to Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay, which kicked off at 1.30pm. Police earlier issued a letter of no objection to the event.
Critics accused the rail operator of trying to suppress a lawful protest, on top of creating travel inconvenience for residents.
“Due to the public event in Kwun Tong areas, as a prudent measure, the Kwun Tong line service will be adjusted, starting from noon until further notice,” the rail operator said in a statement.
Train stations between Kowloon Bay and Lam Tin on the line will also be closed, while rail operations between Whampoa and Choi Hung will run as usual.
At noon about a dozen protesters and a few residents gathered at Kwun Tong station’s customer service centre to complain.
“How will people go to work?” a resident shouted. Several residents who wanted to take the MTR questioned the decision to suspend services.
Protesters heckled frontline staff, who were handing out feedback forms for them to fill out. An employee tried to shut metal gates to the station at around 12.20pm but was prevented from doing so by a protester sitting under the gate. Some others joined him later.
A demonstrator blocking the gate said: “The most convenient way of transport is suspended before a march. Makes you wonder if they’re working with police. It doesn’t make sense because today’s march is approved.”
More black-clad protesters joined the stand-off, with police eventually called in, but the crowd dispersed by 2pm without incident.
Tensions are rising at Kwun Tong MTR station as protesters and residents confront staff over a service suspension before a demonstration in the area. pic.twitter.com/4zFdtdh3XZ
— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) August 24, 2019
The service suspensions came a day after the rail giant obtained an injunction to restrain people from unlawfully and wilfully obstructing or interfering with the proper use of stations and trains.
According to the legal document on the MTR’s website, actions interfering with train doors or behaviour causing a nuisance on trains or in stations are not allowed. The court order also bars people from damaging any property or using “threatening, abusive, obscene or offensive language”, or wilfully interfering with the comfort or convenience of anyone at stations.
The order will remain in force until next Friday.
The operator earlier said if fights, vandalism or other acts of violence occur, and in high-risk or emergency situations, train services to and from the concerned stations might be stopped immediately with little or no prior notice.
“Police may need to enter stations to take suitable law enforcement action when necessary,” it added.
Mainland Chinese state media had issued a warning to the company against any attempt to facilitate “rioters” in destabilising actions, saying the MTR Corp ran the risk of “derailing and slipping into the abyss”.
On Saturday, the rail operator did not answer media inquiries over the service suspensions or who was behind the decision, but Kwun Tong march organiser Ventus Lau Wing-hong joined the chorus of criticism against the MTR Corp.
He said the firm did not carry out similar moves when an estimated 1 million to 2 million people showed up on Hong Kong Island for previous mass marches.
“I really don’t understand what happened to prompt the MTR Corp to take such large measures to suppress lawful protests,” he said.
He questioned if the government had received an order to force the company into such arrangements.
Apart from pressing authorities to withdraw the now-shelved extradition bill – one of the demands put forth by protesters – marchers on Saturday would call on the government to explain if people’s privacy would be violated by a plan to set up “smart lamp posts” in Kwun Tong and other areas.
These are devices along the streets that can monitor traffic conditions, weather and air quality.
While Lau estimated a turnout of 4,000, he aired safety concerns, saying there could be risks if the area became too crowded and people could not leave conveniently.
“The MTR Corp has to be responsible for the danger posed,” he said.
Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho, who represents the Kowloon East constituency, also hit out at the MTR Corp.
“There is no chaos now. This is a lawful assembly and march. People also need to go to the place. If you don’t provide a transport service to allow them to go there, then aren’t you helping to suppress the protest?” he questioned.
He suggested that by depriving residents of train services, the intention of authorities was to make them feel negative over the protest.
Wings Leung, a housewife who was joining the march, echoed Tam’s view.
“They’re hypocrites, they keep saying how protesters’ non-cooperative action disrupts residents. This is way worse, everyone is affected,” she said.
A 70-year-old retiree struggling to find her way back from Choi Hung station to her home in Kwun Tong said she was outraged by the MTR suspension and the demonstration.
“It’s totally ridiculous. I just went shopping in Sham Shui Po and now I have no idea how to get back home,” said the woman, who lives in Kwun Tong Garden Estate. She only gave her last name as Kan.
She said she was not aware of the planned demonstration. Without a smartphone to access online maps, she could only rely on the help of passengers waiting at bus stops outside Choi Hung station for directions.
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