Putting fresh life into the ding ding
Tsang Wing-hang may be a local and has worked for the public transport system all his life, but he had just one encounter with a tram before taking the top job at the city's iconic ding ding - and it was not a happy one.
'I was interviewed by a TV reporter on a tram more than two decades ago,' Tsang said. 'I was then a junior transport officer, and I specifically requested that no question be asked on whether the tram system should be scrapped.
'The reporter agreed, but when the camera rolled, guess what she asked!'
Refurbishing the lumbering tram network was a hotly debated topic in the late '70s. At a time when the MTR was being rolled out across Hong Kong Island, a question on a sensitive issue like the fate of the trams could have proved to be a fatal trap for a junior official who had just joined the Transport Department.
Tsang, however, dodged the bullet with elan, and his long-winded response on how the government would listen to all stakeholders and relevant departments before reaching a decision threw the reporter off the track and won the plaudits of his superiors. He was eventually promoted to the post of chief transport officer, but in his 16-year career with the department, the contentious issue of trams would never cross his path again.
'I handled many tricky issues - including the change of hands of China Motor Bus, fares and toll rises - but for some reason, nothing related to trams,' he said.
Until 2010 that is, when he joined Hong Kong Tramways as a part-time consultant. On July 1 this year, the 65-year-old became the managing director, appointed to the post by French conglomerate Veolia, which bought the company from Wharf Holdings in 2009.
The acquisition by a foreign multinational not only startled many stakeholders in the public transport sector at the time but also raised the eyebrows of conservationists, who worried the century-old piece of the city's heritage would lose its way as Veolia rolled out a HK$200 million renovation plan to regain passengers and boost the bottom line.
Tsang, who had just retired from New World Group, was also sceptical. Some in the public transport field thought Veolia's move defied logic, as the tramway was barely profitable and had suffered a steady haemorrhage in passenger numbers.
But three years on, with himself in the driver's seat, Tsang thinks differently: 'The only way a foreign newcomer could get a toehold in a public transport market was through acquisitions, and if Veolia could do a good job with Hong Kong Tramways, it would set a good example, helping the company on mainland China.'
Veolia's had a bit of a rough ride, though. In the beginning, its efforts to make more effective use of the tram schedule resulted in the first protest by staff in more than 12 years. They complained that they were working odd hours, sometimes in other districts, which cut into their family time. The management was forced to return to the original arrangement.
Its application for a 50 HK cent fare rise to fund part of the renovation project also hit a bump, as the Executive Council approved an increase of only 30 HK cents per trip.
Some of Veolia's other initiatives to better serve passengers, such as breaking the tram loop into segments, with turnarounds in Wan Chai and North Point, didn't go anywhere, either, as the Transport Department protested that it would cause disruptions at key road junctions. The company's attempts to obtain more exclusive lanes for trams and the removal of some parking areas along busy roads in Central and Wan Chai to improve tram speed also fell on deaf ears.
'The police and the Transport Department were actually supportive [of the idea to remove some parking areas], but they needed the endorsement of the community and other stakeholders, which is not always the easiest thing to do,' Tsang said.
Despite all the obstacles, Tsang - with his diplomatic skills and connections in the government, political parties and the transport sector - is confident of achieving all the pending tasks in his tenure as managing director.
'I had already half-retired and led a leisurely life prior to joining Tramways,' Tsang said. 'If I hadn't thought the company had a future, I wouldn't have opted to stay.'
When Tsang joined Tramways as a part-time consultant in 2010, he wasn't thinking of staying for long, as he enjoyed splitting his time among work, teaching and travel. But last year, he was promoted to deputy managing director, and when his predecessor, Bruno Charrade, moved to Veolia's office in Chile this year, Tsang was offered the top job.
One of his priorities, Tsang said, was to regain the passengers the trams had lost. The number of passengers dropped 4.6 per cent last year, a steeper fall than the 1.9 per cent the previous year. His other goals include improving the trams' image and launching new projects.
'We will bid for transport projects in Kai Tak and West Kowloon. I understand the government prefers monorail to trams in Kai Tak, but we'll still bid for the project if we can't change their view. We have the experience in building a monorail and we'll not lose it to MTR.'
But with trains as the backbone of Hong Kong's transport system, developing other modes of transport isn't going to be a cakewalk. The planned opening in 2014 of the West Island Line to extend MTR services from Sheung Wan to Kennedy Town could deal another blow to trams.
Tramways, which should have more than 80 per cent of its fleet replaced by 2014, might then be in a position to put a previously infeasible plan to retrofit trams with air conditioners back on track.
Established in 1903, Hong Kong Tramways has 161 passenger trams and two antique trams. It is the world's largest fleet of double-decker trams in service. They carry an average of 230,000 passengers every day over six routes covering a total of 120 tram stops over 30 kilometres between Shau Kei Wan, Happy Valley and Kennedy Town.
Veolia Transport China, owner of Hong Kong Tramways, is a 50-50 joint venture between Veolia Transport and RATP Development, which are both major public transport operators based in France.
Since the takeover, Veolia has renovated the trams' interiors, put in new braking and traction systems and upgraded tracks. It has also installed a digital passenger information service and the city's first real-time traffic system to make operations smoother.