Government avoiding responsibility for Hong Kong's transport failures
Hung Wing-tat says the government's favoured let-the-market-rule philosophy enables it to avoid responsibility for ensuring Hong Kong's transport system is safe, reliable and affordable
There are many time bombs in the urban transport system and, if not carefully managed, they will explode at the most inconvenient times. Not only will the operators and our transport bureau heads have to bear the consequences, but there will also be great inconvenience to the public.
The recent incidents on the MTR, overcrowding and malfunctions, and gridlock in urban areas - in particular at the harbour crossing tunnels - are but some of these bombs. If Hong Kong were truly the world city that our government claims, one would suppose that the management of these time bombs was under control, in the safe hands of our transport secretary, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung. If you believe this, however, you'd be wrong.
The government's 2012 yearly report claims that "Hong Kong's public transport system, widely regarded as one of the best in the world, provides comprehensive, comfortable and safe travel options at affordable prices". Outlining the transport strategy and policy objectives, it says that the "government helps provide a safe, efficient, reliable and environment-friendly transport system that meets the community's economic, social and recreational needs".
Notice that the report uses the words "helps provide", not "proactively secures" for instance. The administration sees its role as helping someone else provide the service, not bearing responsibility to guarantee such a service. Thus, the private sector will have to provide the world-class service. It is crystal clear that the administration's attitude is one of "let the market rule, who cares?" - or the so-called "big market, small government" policy of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration.
It is common knowledge that market rules work well in many businesses but not in common spaces, such as roads, or for the common good, as with the environment. Every operator carrying passengers or freight will send its buses, minibuses, trucks or taxis on the same money-earning or cheapest toll routes, resulting in severe congestion. This is evident in places such as along Nathan Road and Queensway, and at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
Government inaction on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls, to regulate and thus ease traffic flows through congested routes, typically reflects its calculating mentality. It is sad that our transport bureau has no vision or mission, and takes no responsibility for the common good in the community. Time and again, there have been public outcries for regulating tolls at the three crossings, provoked by price adjustment applications for the Western and Eastern crossings.
Since 2002, three consultancy studies have been conducted, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. And, hundreds of hours have been spent in Legislative Council debates. All this has resulted only in government inaction.
Officials use the same tactics again and again. When public pressure builds, they hire consultants to buy time to cool things down. After the consultant finishes the report, the government can sit on it and wait for a good time to announce its inaction. The time bomb can thus be left to the next administration.
When seeking to justify such inaction, Cheung said traffic flows through the Central crossing had declined while the Eastern crossing had seen an increase in traffic flow over the past two years. Therefore, there was no need for action. Yet, Cheung may well be unaware of the sharp increase in vehicle numbers in recent years. The longer-term trend for traffic is definitely upwards. If he made his decision based on short-term fluctuations rather than long-term trends, that can only mean more misery for Hong Kong.
It would seem that Cheung is too busy with pressing housing issues to have time to actually think through transport matters. His subordinates, in particular undersecretary Yau Shing-mu and permanent secretary Joseph Lai Yee-tak, should share some responsibility in pursuing transport policies and strategies.
Recent problems on the MTR reveal clearly the attitude of inaction in transport matters. The Tseung Kwan O line was disrupted for five hours, affecting the evening rush hour, after a power cable became dislodged last December. The line was shut down and thousands of travellers were left stranded. The MTR Corporation was left to handle matters. Yet, supposedly, there is an Emergency Transport Incident Coordination Centre under the Transport Department to deal with such incidents. The stranded public certainly wasn't aware of its existence at the time. In fact, no transport officials turned up following the incident.
One has to wonder about the bureau's entire transport team after listening to Cheung's responses to the two latest incidents on the MTR, involving electrical insulator failures along the East Rail line. Cheung talked about financial penalties being imposed on the MTR Corp and his demands for reports into the problems.
Yet, he never mentioned the action of his team. For example, the Railway Inspectorate is tasked with overseeing safety operations and investigating incidents. But its officials also appear to be invisible, even after these incidents. Are they simply waiting for the MTR Corp report or will they, similar to their British counterparts, actually investigate and form their own opinions on what happened?
Whether the government is deliberately leaving transport matters in private hands or not, Cheung's actions clearly fall short of public expectations. People really want an efficient, safe, reliable, environmentally friendly and affordable public transport system, as the government claims we have - not worsening congestion, more rail service breakdowns, escalating pollution and public transport fare hikes. Cheung and his team have to step up and do much more than simply let the market rule and "help provide" a good transport system for Hong Kong.
Dr Hung Wing-tat is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University