Promises must be kept if tram fares rise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 August, 2010, 12:00am

No one likes fare rises. So when the new French owner of Hong Kong Tramways announced it wanted to raise fares, public reactions were mixed. But, given the modest price of HK$2 that Hong Kong trams have charged for 12 years, a rise of 50 cents may be amply justified if Veolia Transport makes good on its promise of major improvements for passengers and road users alike.

For more than a century, the trams have proved to be the cheapest, as well as one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly, forms of mass transport systems. They also enjoy an iconic status as an integral part of the city's cultural heritage.

However, it is also hard to ignore the drawbacks, which have led patronage to slip by an average of 1.5 per cent a year over the past decade. The cabins of many trams have become worn out; during rush hours, crowded conditions in the summer months can be intensely uncomfortable for passengers; and the trams travel slowly in a city full of impatient people. Part of the justification for longtime owner Wharf to sell its shares to the French company last year has been the chance to upgrade the services while preserving the trams' character. Given the value of the trams as icon, tourist attraction and daily transport for almost a quarter of a million people, any improvement is to be welcome.

Veolia said the money raised from higher fares would help pay for the upgrade, which includes retooling the tracks to reduce noise and friction; installing better motors to improve speed, torque and braking; renovating the cabins and installing a broadcasting system and route maps. It may also add turnarounds along the route between Wan Chai and North Point. That would increase frequency by breaking the journey between Shau Kei Wan and Western into shorter loops. Installing air-conditioning is also being studied, though a decision has apparently not been made.

The proposed improvements are sensible and much needed. But the Transport Department, if it approves the fare rise, must ensure Veolia fulfil its promises.