Tim Hamlett's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am

A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city. E-mail him at hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk

Someone seems to be very anxious to make sure that humble commuters notice the recent change in our railway arrangements.

Looking at the festive decorations in my local branch of what we must now, I suppose, call the former KCR, I had to remind myself that actually no tracks had been laid, stations opened, locomotives launched or services upgraded.

We do have an interesting new map, but it merely records the existing arrangements. Whatever the future holds for the two merged railways, the immediate import of the merger is purely financial.

So why, one wondered, the triumphalism? After all, this was not the culmination of a long and arduous campaign to put our tubes on a new track, or our tracks in a new tube.

It was the government's wish that the two bodies should merge, and nobody resisted very vigorously. Yet someone seems to be very keen on the new arrangement.

I was astonished at the enthusiasm - one of my friends suggested that vindictiveness might be a better word - with which all traces of the KCR had been expunged. It seemed that the policy was that all copies of the KCR's name or logo should disappear overnight, even if the immediate replacement was just some rather crude paintwork.

My family now derives some innocent amusement from spotting surviving copies of the KCR logo. There are not many, it seems, but there are enough to make the game playable. Do not ask me where they are.

There is something almost Orwellian about this hasty extinguishing job. One wonders if there is a minor civil servant in the Ministry of Truth going through the official collection of historic photographs, removing all traces of the old railway set-up with Photoshop.

I suppose the KCR is not loved in high places. It is one of those little oddities of life in Hong Kong that the nominally independent MTR Corp has always behaved like an organisation very well aware of which side its bread was buttered on, while the KCR, nominally a government department, retained an obstinate independent spirit. Independent spirits are not cherished these days, alas.

Anyway, it is too late to say anything about the merger. What's done is done. I am still wondering, though, why the resulting network has been saddled with the name and logo of the MTR. After all, this is supposed to be a merger. So presumably there was a choice. And someone chose badly. Mass Transit Railway is not a name, it is a category. It sounds like something lifted straight off an outline zoning plan.

Steamy pioneers like Stephenson, Brunel or Gresley would rather have resigned than paint 'Mass Transit Railway' on the side of one of their creations. It is a title with no soul. Of course, we cannot go back to the days when trains were led around by exquisite pieces of Victorian engineering with names like 'Lord of the Isles' or 'Royal Scot' ... or even Thomas and Henry. But that is no reason for plastering them with a phrase that sounds as if it came from a town-planning textbook.

The Kowloon-Canton Railway was as old as the Star Ferry Pier Clock. It sounded like a lineal descendant of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, an exotic distant cousin of the Topeka and Santa Fe, a respected if minor tributary of the Trans-Siberian. It sounded, in short, like a real railway. This is partly, of course, because it was a real railway.

Unlike the MTR, whose trains just follow each other around, the KCR had variety - expresses and slow trains, freight trains and visitors from other networks. It also, of course, had a light rail hobby. The curious result of this is that although the combined network is called the MTR, former MTR staff will have no idea how to work the former KCR parts and former KCR people will find the MTR parts rather simple.

I do not suggest this will be a problem. It is axiomatic, these days, that people with the right political connections can do anything.

I suppose there is one problem with the old KCR name, and that is the presence of the word 'Canton', which we are no longer supposed to use for Guangzhou. It was all right in its day, but no longer fits the spirit of the times, like Sir Donald Tsang's knighthood. But if we could not have a nice old name, why not a nice new one?

Before leaving this topic, one small aspect of the merger merits a hearty welcome. According to a sign in Kowloon Tong, the new railway is abandoning the old MTR cross-your-legs policy on the matter of toilets. Passengers in need may now, if they ask nicely, use the staff loo. As Shakespeare said somewhere, 'for this relief, much thanks'.

Kevin Sinclair is on extended leave.