MTR's highest fare still far stop from financial burden
The latest [MTR fare] increase will place a serious financial burden on many passengers, especially people from low income groups. They find their wages have not gone up but everything is now more expensive ... Transport subsidies are available but there are tight restrictions.
Letter to the editor, May 11
This letter writer obviously feels the pinch of straitened circumstances, and I am thus a little hesitant to say things are not quite so bad. But some things need pointing out here, nonetheless.
Let's start with the assertion that a 5.4 per cent fare increase will impose a serious financial burden on some people. I pored through the Mass Transit Railway's fare chart the other day and the highest single trip fare I could find was HK$23.70 for a journey from Chai Wan to Tuen Mun.
Why anyone should want to travel direct between these two I don't know, and I'm sure very few people do.
Of course, if you really want to pay too much on the MTR you can first go to Sheung Shui on East Rail and then pay another HK$23.60 for a one-stop hop to the Lo Wu border station. I am all in favour of this rip-off as a way of making mainland travellers subsidise Hong Kong commuters, but we shall exclude it from this exercise. And now I have a question for you. How far do you think you could travel on the London Underground for the highest single trip fare that you could possibly pay on the MTR?
The answer is that you would not even be allowed through the turnstile. The lowest fare for a single one-stop journey in central London is higher than the highest possible fare you can pay on the MTR. The words 'serious financial burden' thus seem a bit over the top as a description of MTR fares.
Nor can we accuse the MTR of pushing up its fares faster than the general rate of inflation. As the chart shows, the MTR kept its fares up when the Hong Kong economy went into disinflation in 1998 but also held them down as prices started rising again.
Even now, according to the consumer price index, MTR fares on average are at about the same level they were 12 years ago. This can hardly be described as an inflationary squeeze.
Our letter writer also has it wrong in saying that wages have not gone up. Our statisticians tend to be a little tardy in turning out wage and salary data. The latest figures I have from them still go only to the end of last year. These, however, indicate that pay rises last year averaged 8 to 10 per cent across the board and that this upward trend was already well under way the year before. Pay is rising faster than MTR fares, not the other way round.
But what I particularly think worth noting in this letter is the assertion there are tight restrictions on transport subsidies. The fact is that only last year our government started paying a HK$600-a-month travel allowance to every household earning less than HK$10,000 a month.
This minimum-income qualification has since been raised on a sliding scale. A household of two people now qualifies if its members earn less than HK$14,105 a month. They also only have to work a combined 72 hours a month to qualify. Part-time makes the grade.
I just cannot see how this can be described as a tight restriction on transport subsidies. You just apply and the government pays the money to your bank account every month.
However, I can see how this kind of blanket subsidy may not really do all that much good for the recipients. The news of it reaches employers as easily as employees and the reaction of employers is easy to guess: 'Well, if the government wants to pay my waitresses an extra HK$600 a month why should I raise their pay too?'
Irony rules. A travel subsidy for employees turns, just like that, into a wage subsidy for employers.