Coronavirus: MTR freezes fares, temporarily slashes rent at malls as outbreak wreaks havoc on retailers, passenger numbers

Denise Tsang

A freeze on ticket prices for the remainder of the year and a temporary halving of rents for smaller shops operating inside MTR Corporation malls were among new relief measures unveiled by the rail operator on Thursday amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

News of the moves came just hours after train services were partially disrupted on the East Rail Line serving the New Territories by yet another bomb hoax.

Tickets prices are typically adjusted every year based on a mechanism that takes into account inflation and other macroeconomic statistics, but the MTR Corp. said it will put measures into place to ensure there are no fare increases, even when existing rebates expire on June 30.

It also pledged to halve February and March rents for small- and medium-sized tenants at the 13 malls it operates in Hong Kong amid increasing pressure on landlords to cut rents for retailers and restaurants amid the steep economic downturn.

Armed police officers search the area where a suspected explosive device was found near Tai Wai MTR station on February 20. Photo: Sam Tsang

“Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in January, the corporation’s revenue from the various train services, station commercial businesses and MTR Malls have been severely affected. However, we also see tremendous pressure on different sectors of the society, and some of the small- to medium-tenants are having difficulty staying afloat,” MTR Corp CEO Jacob Kam Chak-pui said in a statement.

“As a member of the Hong Kong community, we hope to do the best we can to support the community during the difficult times.”

Hong Kong is struggling against the coronavirus that originated from Wuhan city of China and caused Covid-19, with the number of infections at 67 and at least 74,500 across the border as of Thursday afternoon. Death tolls in Hong Kong stood at two and more than 2,100.

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

Hong Kong’s retailers have been pushing hard for rent breaks as business plummets amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

On Tuesday, about 50 brands running 200 shops and restaurants in the city staged a strike to force landlords to cut rents.

Meanwhile, train services were disrupted for more than an hour on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line on Thursday afternoon after a suspicious object was found off the tracks between Kowloon Tong and Tai Wai MTR stations.

Bomb disposal officers said a shoebox-like object, wrapped in duct tape, was found near Tai Wai MTR station in Sha Tin soon after 11.30am on Thursday.

Traditional Chinese characters meaning “Hong Kong National Independence Party” were found written on it, assistant Sha Tin district commander (crime), Superintendent Chan Yan said.

“Our colleagues from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau blew it up, only to find it was an empty shoebox. There was no bomb or explosives inside,” he said.

“The box was wrapped to make it look like a bomb. It is difficult for commoners to understand whether there is a bomb inside or not. If not handled with caution, such items can lead to a disaster.”

Explosives found at railway station on Hong Kong’s border with mainland China

Soon after 2pm, the MTR Corporation said train services on the route between Hung Hom and the border district of Sheung Shui were gradually resuming after a thorough inspection by police.

Free shuttle buses were arranged for passengers commuting between Kowloon Tong and Tai Wai.

The Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau MTR stations on Hong Kong’s border with mainland China have already been temporarily closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

It was the fourth time since February 2 that suspicious objects were found on MTR premises.

“Lawbreakers create panic by breaching public peace amid a tense situation created by the coronavirus outbreak. These are irresponsible acts,” Chan said, adding that police would bring the criminals to justice.

In Hong Kong, the offence of staging a bomb hoax carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

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