South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Albert Cheng says the corporation’s executives must be held to account not only for the series of public grievances but, more importantly, for the much larger problems of delays and budget overruns for the high-speed link
Opened in 1979, the MTR was once the pride of Hong Kong. It was convenient, efficient and reliable. Less than 40 years down the track, the system has degenerated into a major source of public grievance and discontent.
Despite the millions of dollars it has spent on branding itself as a responsible corporate citizen, the MTR Corporation has been repeatedly criticised for being insensitive. The latest case is its treatment of students with musical instruments. Last month, a schoolgirl was stopped by MTR staff at Tai Wai station for carrying a guzheng. They invoked a by-law which bars luggage exceeding 130cm in length. Days later, a university student carrying a cello was also turned away as the instrument was 4cm over the size limit.
Netizens were quick to point out the MTR’s double standards. Photos of parallel traders and mainland tourists with mattresses, washing machines and other oversized items on the trains went viral. The company agreed to review its policy only after some 100 music lovers converged at Tai Wai station for an impromptu concert to mock it.
A year ago, it was animal lovers who the MTR upset. The company allowed a train from Guangzhou to run through Fanling station before a stray dog could be removed from the tracks, killing the animal. As a result, more than 75,000 people signed an online petition seeking justice.
Such affronts to public sentiment come amid declining standards and disruptions to the service. It is only reasonable, therefore, for the public to question the diligence, if not the competence, of MTR management.
However, such problems are only hiccups in comparison with the delay and budget overrun of the company’s project to build the local section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.
The government, which holds a 70 per cent stake in the company, entrusted the MTR Corporation to manage the construction of the 26km railway at an initial cost of HK$65 billion. That figure has now been revised to HK$85.3 billion.
Officials have yet to work out with the corporation exactly who should be responsible for what. Small shareholders are likely to have to bear some of the financial consequences. If the government makes up for the funding gap, taxpayers will be penalised for the MTR’s failure as project manager.
The Legislative Council is conducting an inquiry into the fiasco. The Securities and Futures Commission should also intervene to ascertain whether the board of the MTR Corporation has been derelict in its duty.
At a shareholder meeting in March 2014, one investor asked whether the high-speed railway would come on stream as scheduled in 2015. Board chairman Raymond Chien Kuo-fung replied that the MTR management would have a better idea the following month. Issued in July 2014, the first report by an independent board committee confirmed that the project director had given a progress report to the CEO and other executives in July 2013, in which he sought consent to defer the opening date from August to December 2015.
Chien was apparently unaware of this major setback. The report says: “The project director reported only for the first time to the executive committee that a 2015 opening date was unachievable on 12 April 2014. Opening of the [rail link] was now expected in 2017. The chief executive officer immediately informed the chairman and the secretary for transport and housing of the delay in the project and began to discuss with each of them a communication strategy in relation to the delay.”
Chien was only informed when the delay had become a fait accompli. It is up to the Legco Select Committee and members of the public to judge whether senior executives kept the chairman and his board in the dark, or whether Chien and his board members failed to safeguard shareholders’ interests by overseeing the performance of the executives.
The MTR’s interests aside, the reputation of Hong Kong as a financial centre is also at stake.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.