MTR chief executive Jay Walder will leave his job after his contract ends next year, the company announced yesterday, as the government said it would appoint more directors to the board to strengthen its role in the firm.
Walder is the third and highest-ranking executive whose departure has been announced amid the row over the delayed high-speed railway.
But MTR chairman Raymond Chien Kuo-fung said the decision was made last year and was not related to Walder's handling of the cross-border express project.
Walder cited family reasons for the decision not to renew the contract further after it was continued for two years in August.
"This is a mutual agreement," he said. "It fits our family purposes, and that's why we wanted to do it."
The American chief executive has been at the centre of controversy over the delay in completion of the HK$67 billion project until 2017. It was revealed earlier that the government had wanted to tell lawmakers in November about the possible delay but was stopped from doing so by a phone call from Walder to the transport minister, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung.
Walder was the highest paid executive with the MTR Corp last year, taking home HK$13 million, according to the corporation's annual report. Project director Chew Tai-chong, who will retire early in October as a result of the delay, came second with HK$9.9 million, 45 per cent up from the previous year.
Alan Myers, general manager of construction at the West Kowloon terminus, also cited family reasons when it was disclosed he would not renew his contract when it ends in two weeks.
Chien said a global search for a new chief executive would start soon.
Cheung said the government, which now appoints only three of the 15 non-executive MTR board members and the chairman, would appoint more members from a wide variety of backgrounds to strengthen its monitoring role. Cheung would not comment on Walder's performance or on rumours that he also wanted to step down.
Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said Walder's mere departure was insufficient, and said he would seek the invoking of special Legco investigative powers to probe the scandal.
Additional reporting by Tanna Chong
Rail delay: MTR 'did its best' to meet schedule
The MTR claims it has tried its best to tackle difficulties in building the high-speed railway to Guangzhou and if the government wants to seek compensation for the two-year delay, it would have to prove the corporation did not fulfil its duties.
"There were some problems in communication, but the team has tried its best to deliver the project," said MTR chairman Raymond Chien Kuo-fung.
He was speaking at the MTR's annual general meeting with shareholders yesterday, after the government said it was seeking legal advice on whether the MTR should pay for costs incurred by the railway's two-year delay.
"The communication problems did not lead to further delays or cost increases … If the company is to bear any costs, [the government] needs to prove we did not fulfil our duty."
Chien and other board members said they did not see any issues with the project management. But the shareholders and their representatives, including lawmaker Tang Ka-piu and the Labour Party's Tam Chun-yin, criticised the MTR for not having been honest about the delay.
Chien and MTR chief executive Jay Walder said they understood the criticism, with Walder also noting the projects team had tried its best. He conceded that the management could have done better in terms of communication, but said the issue should not be seen as a problem with the project management.
If the government decides to seek compensation from the MTR, it would be the first such case in the city's railway history.
Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, a former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation before it merged with MTR Corp, said it would be "ridiculous" for the government not to make a claim against the MTR. The MTR could pay up to HK$6.2 billion for the city's economic losses due to the delay, he said.
But Richard Di Bona, who runs a local transport consultancy, said if the government did seek compensation, it risked damaging its relationship with the corporation.
"When the government wants the MTR to help in another project, the company may consider it too risky," he said.
Polytechnic University transport analyst Dr Hung Wing-tat said the government could make a claim only after August 2015, the project's initial deadline.
If taken to court, a legal tussle could take years to settle, he said.