Paying up just to go to work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am


In Hong Kong, up to 73.9 per cent of the working population needs to commute from their home to other parts of the city for work. Tin Shui Wai is no exception. Yet the only form of transport to and from Tin Shai Wai is MTR's West Rail and buses.

A survey on transport expenses done by the Community Development Alliance and Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs has found that bus fares and MTR charges to central districts are higher from Tin Shui Wai, Yuen Long, and Tuen Mun than from other remote districts such as the Northern District and Tung Chung (see table below). This is bad news for Tin Shui Wai residents who are mostly low-income families living on public housing estates. High transportation costs have put a financial burden on people who want to find a job but can ill-afford to travel long distances daily.

Chan Kwok-yin lives with his wife and three children in public housing in Tin Shui Wai. He has a job at a recycling business and has to rely on welfare for low-income families. His salary and welfare payments add up to HK$10,000 a month for his family of five.

Six days every week, Chan travels to Hung Hom to work by bus. A bus ride on route 269B from his home to his workplace costs him HK$17. That means HK$34 a day on transport alone - or HK$884 a month. That accounts for nearly 10 per cent of his household income.

The ticket fare for MTR is pretty much the same. For working class families who commute to and from work at least five times a week, the cheapest way is to purchase a monthly pass. The monthly pass for East Rail from Sheung Shui to Tsim Sha Tsui East costs HK$390. A West Rail monthly pass from Tuen Mun to Tsim Sha Tsui East costs HK$480. It is no wonder that many residents in Tin Shui Wai bemoan the lack of cheaper travel alternatives in the district.

Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a lecturer at the Department of Applied Social Science at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, thinks the unreasonably high transport costs are the result of profit-driven corporate behaviour.

'In a free market it is a huge privilege to operate with little to no competition, as the MTR and the bus companies do,' he said. 'The companies should be thinking about giving back more to society and not just trying to make money hand over fist in whichever way possible. We should remember that public transport is an important public resource and should not be left in the control of a few enterprises without the involvement of the public.'

Cheung added: 'We need to monitor the operators of public services such as railways and buses. I lived in San Francisco for more than 10 years. Public facilities there, such as railways and buses, are overseen by a board of directors who are elected officials. Operators are held accountable to the public, not shareholders. Allowing profit-driven parties to dominate key life necessities such as public transport can put a financial strain on people. We need management that is held accountable by the public and aren't beholden to business interests.'

Chan Yu-cheung, a project worker for the Community Development Alliance, an organisation that assists working class families, agrees that the MTR is too profit-driven to be socially responsible. 'I understand that passenger numbers for West Rail is nowhere near the numbers for East Rail, but that is no reason to set the fares much higher,' he said.

'I am not saying that it is wrong to make profit, but MTR made HK$12 billion last year in profits. That's a 25 per cent increase from the year before. There is definitely room to reduce prices. Sadly, however, that is not how the company's shareholders think.'

As a public company, MTR needs to generate profits for its shareholders. At the same time, however, they manage resources that are crucial to citizen's daily lives.

More than half, or 55.5 per cent, of Tin Shui Wai's population are low-income families with a monthly income of around HK$10,000. Up to 60 per cent of them live in public housing estates. 'Yet they have no choice but to pay for West Rail just to go to work,' Chan added.

He pointed out that MTR fares are reviewed every year under a formula, but that does not mean it is doing a decent job of setting ticket prices. The formula takes inflation rates and a nominal wage index for the transport sector into account. Yet the latter has nothing to do with the spending power of citizens.

'Including the nominal wage index for the transport sector is reasonable as it reflects the expenses of a corporation,' Chan pointed out. 'But I think most working class citizens would agree that inflation has a bearing on the issue.'

Hung Wing-tat, an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, blames high transport costs on a poorly thought-out government policy in Tin Shui Wai. 'Both bus operators and MTR have to charge higher fees on their routes because otherwise they would be losing money as a result of the insufficient number of passengers.'

MTR's response to the accusation that they overcharge on West Rail routes is that the company views the profitability of its entire railway network, not individual lines.

City Bus Limited, which runs seven bus routes between Tin Shui Wai and Hong Kong Island, declined to disclose details on the profitability of their local services.