It's imperative to keep the MTR on track as number of train users rises

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 1:12pm

The Mass Transit Railway is arguably the world's showpiece train system. Everyday, millions of passengers are whisked to their destinations along a rail network functioning with clockwork-like precision and smoothness. It is the synonym of efficiency and reliability, something Hong Kong can be truly proud of. Unfortunately, no machine can be fault-proof. Whenever the system cannot operate as seamlessly as it is expected to, chaos and outrage follow.

In the fourth major breakdown in two months, an electrical fault near the University station forced a partial closure of the East Rail Line for nearly four hours on Sunday. Thousands of passengers scrambled for shuttle buses bridging the route. What used to be a 10-minute ride became an hour-long ordeal as a result. Worse, another train broke down in Kowloon Tong shortly after the line reopened in the afternoon. The operator is liable to a HK$5 million fine as a result. The fines accumulated from previous incidents are estimated to exceed HK$27 million already.

Although mechanical failures were not unheard of in the past, there is every reason to be concerned when a world-class system is perceived to be no longer as reliable and efficient as it used to be. The heavy reliance on the MTR means a single incident can cause mayhem.

The MTR has been in use for decades. It remains unclear whether the breakdowns are isolated cases. But the transport system will be strained further as visitor numbers are expected to hit 100 million within a decade. The recent incidents should ring alarm bells to the management. It would be dangerous if exceptions gradually become the norm.

The penalty system in place should be a sufficient deterrent. But it does not help if the fines become routine and are absorbed as operating cost. There are good reasons why the MTR Corp has to submit a report for every major incident. It's as much for the sake of accountability as for improvement. Lessons from each failure must be taken seriously.

Watch: Hong Kong's MTR during peak hours