Hong Kong MTR threatened with sanctions over signalling debacle, as government bemoans more potential delays for mega rail project

Cannix Yau
·6-min read

Hong Kong officials have threatened the MTR Corporation with sanctions for a signalling blunder that forced the eleventh-hour suspension of a major system upgrade, expressing their “grave disappointment” at potential further delays to the city’s costliest-ever rail project.

The government issued its rebuke on Monday after an MTR Corp investigation panel found that staff had made an error of judgment by failing to push contractors to fully probe the causes of the signalling problems.

The findings triggered yet another admission from the rail operator of fresh delays to the Sha Tin-Central link, which has already racked up a price tag of HK$90.7 billion (US$11.7 billion) after suffering repeated hold ups and cost overruns.

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Hong Kong rail bosses ordered to probe signal glitches on stricken project

MTR Corp investigators said the issue on the East Rail line on September 11 last year – discovered ahead of the launch of a system upgrade – was a reliability matter rather than a safety one.

The investigation panel, chaired by engineer Edmund Leung Kwong-ho, found the team was not sensitive enough to the potential impact on services and did not secure from contractor Siemens a more detailed analysis of what went wrong.

Leung attributed the malfunction to a new piece of since-abandoned software for monitoring train movements. The route-setting problem that was unearthed might have caused a train to deviate from its intended course and head to a wrong station, prompting the MTR Corp to suspend the September 12 launch of the new signalling system.

With the report now released, the start date for the signalling upgrade to allow for a new length of rolling stock has been rescheduled for February 6.

“The government expresses grave disappointment that the incident has led to the postponement of the commissioning of the EAL [East Rail line] new signalling system and mixed-fleet operation, and possible deferral of the commissioning of the cross-harbour section of the EAL, and reserves the right to take further actions against [MTR Corp],” said the administration, which is the corporation’s largest shareholder.

The Sha Tin-Central link has been beset by delays and cost overruns. Photo: Nora Tam
The Sha Tin-Central link has been beset by delays and cost overruns. Photo: Nora Tam

The government accused the rail giant of failing to properly manage the rail project and keeping officials in the dark during the saga.

“[The MTR Corp] should have been able to assess the possible consequences of the incident and take follow-up actions duly, including conducting more thorough investigations, escalating the incident internally, and reporting to the government,” it said.

Officials demanded the urgent implementation of the panel’s recommendations, which include training improvements to heighten staff awareness of public concerns, foster more effective communication, and bring about higher standards of service and reliability.

Releasing its findings, the rail operator said: “The investigative panel opines that the MTR Corp team and the contractor [Siemens] should have realised there were additional underlying root causes to the issue, which were more complex ... It was an error of judgment not to carry out a more detailed investigation earlier.”

Lawmakers slam Hong Kong’s MTR Corp for delays to Sha Tin-Central link

The original plan, before the signalling issues emerged last September, was to roll out shorter trains on the East Rail line – made up of nine carriages rather than the current 12 – in conjunction with the new signalling system to ensure the line conformed to platform designs for the Sha Tin-Central link.

The cross-harbour extension of the East Rail line from Hung Hom to Admiralty is one component of the massive railway project.

The first section of the Sha Tin-Central link – phase one of the new Tuen Ma Line connecting Wu Kai Sha to Kai Tak by way of Tai Wai, Hin Keng and Diamond Hill – opened in February last year.

The Tai Wai-Hung Hom section, once expected to open in December 2018, is now due to open late this year.

MTR Corp’s CEO Jacob Kam Chak-pui on Monday admitted the opening of the Tai Wai-Admiralty section of the link would be further delayed by the signalling system fiasco.

Previously, that entire section was expected to be launched by the first quarter of next year, after repeated delays.

Kam said the new signalling system was on a key stretch for the whole project.

“Whenever there is a delay on the critical path, that means there will be a delay to the overall programme,” he admitted.

“It’s been several months since September to now for introducing the new signalling system. There will be an impact. Of course we want to open it as soon as possible.”

The travelling public has faced repeated delays to upgrades of Hong Kong’s railway. Photo: Sam Tsang
The travelling public has faced repeated delays to upgrades of Hong Kong’s railway. Photo: Sam Tsang

However, Kam stopped short of setting out the length of the fresh delay, saying the operator would report to the public once the full impact was understood.

He emphasised the company was strictly following disciplinary procedures for staff accused of being in dereliction of duty.

Despite the MTR working team’s lack of communication with management and the government, the panel said there was “no intentional concealment of the concerned issue”.

“However, the staff involved underestimated the technical complexity of the issue and were not sensitive enough to public expectations on service reliability,” the investigators said.

“This resulted in absence of thorough investigation into and the delay in internal escalation of the concerned issue and impacted the reporting to relevant government departments.”

The investigation panel acknowledged the MTR Corp’s recent introduction of a service reliability report, a protocol it said would keep government departments in the loop on such issues in the future.

The corporation has also pledged to establish a technical and engineering assurance team to supervise the rail project.

Hong Kong rail bosses ordered to probe signal glitches on stricken project

The report noted that back on May 11 last year Siemens had discovered a software issue that could have caused trains to deviate from their intended course.

The contractor told the rail giant that the defect was caused by a system overload, reporting it as an issue requiring rectification, but the rail team did not deem it a safety matter, the panel found.

In August, Siemens suggested a quick fix but the MTR team was unsuccessful in making the adjustments, with the failure blamed on a typhoon and time pressures.

It was also discovered later that the suggested remedies had failed to solve the route-setting problem.

Calling another delay inevitable, lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, a former chairman of Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, said the panel’s findings underlined the need for an authority to supervise rail projects, a reform the government planned to execute by 2023.

“It is a public relations disaster, for which the MTR staff concerned have to be accountable,” he said.

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