Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation holds line on ticket prices, deferring increase. But critics say it should be doing more amid coronavirus pandemic

Cannix Yau

Calls are mounting for Hong Kong’s embattled rail operator to offer more substantive measures for passengers struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite it outlining the specifics of a fare freeze for the coming year.

Because negative growth in household income triggered a mandatory fare freeze, the MTR Corporation could not bring in the 2.55 per cent increase to which it would normally be entitled. It announced on Thursday, however, that while it would hold the line for this year, customers would make up the increase over the following years.

Under the agreement between the MTR Corp and the government, its majority shareholder, ticket price increases are calculated based on the rate of inflation and a wage index for transport workers.

While household income regressed, government data released on Thursday showed a 3.4 per cent jump in wages in the transport sector.

Masked passengers are seen exiting an MTR train in Hong Kong’s Admiralty area on March 20. Photo: Felix Wong

The MTR Corp also announced it would extend a 3.3 per cent fare rebate set to expire in June until January 1, along with other concessions, including an extension of early bird discounts to the end of May.

“There will be no actual adjustment to MTR fares paid by all passengers in 2020 through implementing a series of promotions arrangements,” the company said in a statement.

The more than HK$800 million package encompasses the fare rebate extensions and over HK$700 million in new 2020/21 fare promotions.

“The MTR is rooted in Hong Kong and has been walking together with Hong Kong people for over 40 years. Both the MTR and Hong Kong people are hard hit by the pandemic, but in spite of our difficulties, we are rolling out different measures and arrangements to alleviate the situation as much as we can,” MTR commercial director Jeny Yeung said.

The rail giant said, however, that the 2.55 per cent fare rise to which it is entitled would be recouped down the road, with increases of 1.28 per cent in 2021/22 and 1.27 per cent in 2022/23 added to future calculations.

A “vaporised hydrogen peroxide robot”, sprays down the interior of an MTR train amid the battle with the deadly coronavirus. Photo: Dickson Lee

For some, the measures announced on Thursday did not go nearly far enough.

Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, said the MTR should not only write off the yearly fare increase entirely, but cut fares by 50 per cent for the next three months to help Hongkongers ride out the pandemic storm.

“The MTR should introduce something with a knock-on effect to ease the plight of Hongkongers,” he said. “I urge [the MTR] to write off this fare rise by holding a meeting with its shareholders and getting their approval.”

Tien added that deferring the fare increase by a year would still represent a burden for passengers.

Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for the Public Transport Research Team, a commuter concern group, said apart from drastic fare concessions, the government should also revamp the mechanism it uses to make annual fare adjustments, which he labelled as flawed and unfair.

“The mechanism has failed to truly reflect the actual economic situation of Hong Kong, as it is highly difficult to trigger a general fare cut,” he said.

MTR freezes fares, temporarily slashes rent at malls as outbreak wreaks havoc

“We need to correct this unfair system to ensure it delivers a fair adjustment for passengers. For the longer run, the government should only apply one fare adjustment mechanism for the other transport operators such as buses.”

The MTR Corp last month pledged to put measures into place to ensure there would be no fare increases this year.

“After this plan is implemented, Octopus fares will stay the same from January 2019 to the end of this year,” it said at the time.

The new measures came on top of an existing 3.3 per cent rebate for passengers meant to offset the fare increase last year, which had been extended to the end of June.

Other existing measures included halving February and March rents for small and medium-sized tenants at the 13 malls it operates in Hong Kong, which have been slammed by the steep economic downturn.

The MTR Corp was hit hard by the suspension of cross-border train services in late January, while its domestic services have suffered as school closures and work-from-home schemes have left many trains operating far below capacity.

Earlier, the embattled firm warned of more bad news in 2020, with the damaging legacy of the anti-government protests 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.

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