My Take

Delay turns up heat on MTR to overhaul

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am

The MTR Corporation has an identity problem. To investors, it's practically a property developer. To commuters, it's the only mass rail operator in town. To the government, its majority shareholder, it's a policy tool, an arm's-length public utility and a profit-turning investment.

As a publicly traded company, it should be accountable to shareholders. But because it's mostly owned by the government, it sometimes finds it convenient to hide behind Big Brother. That was clearly what happened when it made the shock announcement that its massive HK$67 billion high-speed rail linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou would be delayed for two years until 2017. For a time, transport and housing chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung became the public face of this debacle.

Critics of the MTR naturally seize on this incident as reason for an overhaul. Radical proposals range from privatising it under free-market principles to turning it back into a wholly government-owned entity, as it was when it was set up in the mid-1970s.

Such extreme solutions may turn out to be worse than the problem. Despite its complicated missions and web of interests, the MTR has mostly worked - at least until the high-speed rail delay. Until recently, officials were mainly unhappy about incidents that caused train delays ranging from 12 to 30 minutes. Such delays would be considered normal in many developed countries.

As a listed company, the MTR managed to turn a healthy profit throughout the global financial crisis, thanks mostly to its property developments, while its rail operations are recession-proof.

Meanwhile, delays of the kind just disclosed for massive infrastructure projects are not unusual. Major segments of the project on the mainland have also suffered serious delays. Rarely are such massive projects completed on time and within budget.

What is in question is whether Cheung and the MTR honchos, from chief executive Jay Walder down, have obfuscated or lied about it. The real issue is whether the original 2015 deadline was technically feasible or a deadline imposed by a government too subservient to mainland interests. If it's the latter, those calling for a complete overhaul will have a stronger case.