Hong Kong’s East Rail line, already beset by signalling problems, ran into fresh difficulties on Monday as the first full workday for its new nine-carriage trains was marred by a service disruption that lasted more than half an hour.
The disruption, which raised further concerns about reliability, came at about 11.40am as a train bound for Sheung Shui dealt with unspecified equipment failure while travelling to Kowloon Tong from Mong Kok East station, according to rail operator the MTR Corporation.
An MTR spokeswoman said when the train arrived in Kowloon Tong, staff asked passengers to disembark and switch to the next train. Service between Hung Hom and Fo Tan was slowed down from intervals of seven to 15 minutes.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
By about 12.15pm, service had returned to normal after the train was moved from the main track.
“According to our initial assessment, we suspect there was a fault with the equipment. Our operations control centre will conduct a detailed check on the train and find out the reason for the irregularities,” the spokeswoman said.
The equipment issues coincided with the first full workday since the system upgrade was rolled out on Saturday, which included the debut of new shorter trains on the East Rail line consisting of nine rather than 12 carriages.
The switch to fewer cars was made to ensure the line conformed to platform designs for the HK$90.7 billion (US$11.7 billion) Sha Tin-Central link, which is still under construction.
On Saturday, the line’s new signalling system also experienced five separate system glitches. The MTR Corp said it could switch back to the previous system – and trains – if the network suffered “total failure” in the following two weeks.
The system upgrade, originally slated for September of last year, was suspended at the eleventh hour after the rail giant revealed unresolved route-setting problems that could have caused trains to deviate from their intended course and head to a wrong station.
An investigative panel appointed by the MTR Corp last week attributed the malfunction to a new piece of since-abandoned software for monitoring train movements that had overloaded the system.
The panel also criticised project staff for an error in judgment when they failed to push contractor Siemens to fully investigate the causes of the signalling problems.
The government also threatened the MTR Corp with sanctions over the signalling issues, expressing their “grave disappointment” at potential further delays to the Sha Tin-Central link, the city’s costliest rail project.
An MTR spokeswoman said in the initial stage of the system upgrade, it was inevitable to run into some teething problems, adding the rail staff had made relevant adjustments to reduce the impact on passengers.
She said apart from a signalling system fault in Sheung Shui on Saturday morning and the glitch in Kowloon Tong on Monday, the other disruptions were relatively minor.
“According to our observations, the overall operation of the East Rail line is basically normal while our passengers have started to get used to the mixed operation of nine-carriage and 12-carriage trains,” she said.
“Our project staff is on standby and ready to make adjustments whenever the system is running into problems.”
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, a spokesman for commuter concern group Public Transport Research Team, said it was understandable that a new system would run into hiccups and teething problems.
“Only when you put a new system into operation, you will find out whether it really fits into the actual railway environment. Some problems cannot be identified in a computer-simulated scenario,” he said. “As long as the problems won’t affect rail safety, they are understandable.”
He called on the MTR Corp to communicate with train supplier Hyundai Rotem to identify and resolve the problems.
Cheng also raised concerns about overcrowding from the nine-carriage trains on the East Rail line, saying the government needed to increase other public transport services to solve rail congestion.
“The government shouldn’t just rely on the MTR for the supply of a bulk of the city’s public transport. It also needs to increase other services such as buses and minibuses to alleviate commuting burdens on the MTR,” he said.
Northern district councillor Chan Wai-tat also expressed worries the nine-carriage trains would worsen overcrowding on the line, when schools resumed classes and employees no longer worked from home once the Covid-19 health crisis eased.
“At present it is still OK as many people are working from home while face-to-face classes have been suspended. But when everything is back to normal, the MTR needs to increase service frequencies to cope with passenger demand,” he warned.