Free rides on West Rail after fire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am

Efforts to find out what caused explosion gather pace; checks show no other transformers faulty

West Rail commuters will get free rides to make up for the inconvenience caused by Wednesday's fire aboard a train in a tunnel and the disruption it caused to services.

Passengers using the line serving Kowloon West and the northwest New Territories will enjoy free journeys until 1pm on Wednesday, the first working day after the Lunar New Year holiday, the KCRC said yesterday.

The fire in the morning rush hour on a Tsuen Wan-bound train in the Tai Lam Tunnel forced the evacuation of 1,100 passengers, who had to walk 2km out of the tunnel. Eleven needed hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.

An explosion in a transformer on the roof of the second-to-last carriage of the train caused the fire.

Three experts from the transformer's Japanese manufacturer arrived yesterday to investigate the cause of the accident. They will work alongside an independent expert, Ho Siu-lau, a professor in Polytechnic University's department of electrical engineering.

Environment, Transport and Works Bureau chief railways inspector Kady Lo Kin-hung led a team that inspected the crippled train yesterday. Their initial checks confirmed an oil leak appeared to have caused a short-circuit.

KCRC chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun said overnight checks on another 85 transformers of the same model had found no problems, but for safety's sake engineers would carry out more checks on the transformers fitted to West Rail trains after the end of services last night.

'The inspection we conducted [on Wednesday] night was the same as the thorough inspection the faulty transformer passed last July. Why did the transformer malfunction even after the thorough check? Do we have to review the whole maintenance procedure? We don't know yet and we will find out,' Mr Tien said.

He assured the public that, with a thorough inspection having been carried out, the chances of a recurrence of Wednesday's fire were extremely slim.

An interdepartmental government team will review the rail operator's evacuation procedures.

'We would like to see what lesson we can learn from this incident,' Mr Lo said.

Mr Tien said there had been no problems during the evacuation and that the rail operator's contingency plan worked.

Passengers who had been aboard the train called radio phone-in programmes yesterday.

One said the evacuation had been carried out in a largely orderly way. 'The driver gave clear instructions. People just followed his instructions and got off the train and walked,' the caller said.

But another complained that there were no West Rail staff to assist them when they got out of the tunnel.

'We were in the middle of nowhere [after getting out of the tunnel]. No West Rail staff were there to tell us where we should go, or if they had shuttle buses for us,' the second caller said.

KCRC chief executive James Blake was asked why the tunnel does not have a sprinkler system. He said this was normal because in the event of an accident, having water spraying on electrical equipment would be dangerous.

Mr Blake said: 'The tunnel is designed to handle an emergency of this nature. It is also designed to withstand a certain amount of heat.

'With water and electricity, the result could be a disaster.'

Wong Kwong-chi, who helps plan the Fire Services Department's response to incidents on the railways, said it had taken firefighters 10 minutes to 15 minutes to reach the burning train.

'It is not very satisfactory. For fires in urban buildings, our target response time is six minutes. We may discuss with the KCRC what we can do to improve,' Mr Wong said in an RTHK interview.