My Take

MTR and Hong Kong government must come clean over railway delay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:14am

Delays and cost overruns are almost inevitable with mega public works projects everywhere. The question for officials in charge is how to be transparent and come clean with taxpayers footing the bill.

There is no question the much-heralded HK$67 billion high-speed railway linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou poses immense technical challenges. But the way MTR officials have suddenly revealed a two-year delay - which apparently surprised even transport chief Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, an MTR board member - raises serious doubts about the MTR's transparency and credibility.

The 26-kilometre Hong Kong underground link was originally scheduled to open next year. Now it looks like it won't happen until at least 2017.

Officials like MTR network projects director Chew Tai-chong have blamed the weather and elements like geological factors for causing the delay.

He said heavy rain last month flooded a construction site and seriously damaged a tunnel boring machine. He also said geological conditions turned out to be more complicated than anticipated.

All these sounded like Mother Nature was to blame, not the MTR.

The funny thing is that as early as May last year, there were already reports that the project faced substantial delays. But MTR officials kept denying this.

More recently, they changed their tune, saying the link might have to open in 2016.

No one ever says it's easy to build what is the equivalent of a 10-storey building underground at the West Kowloon terminus, among other challenges.

But we have no way of knowing because the MTR has been less than forthcoming all along, creating the impression that it is not telling us everything.

For example, it won't say what is causing a delay that will push back the opening by two years when damage to the tunnel boring machine will only delay things by about nine months, nor exactly how much of a cost overrun we are looking at besides saying there is a HK$4.4 billion contingency fund to dip into. Is that supposed to be reassuring?

Whatever caused the delay and any cost overrun, it's time for the MTR and the government to come clean.