Time for MTR to shake off its scandals and get back on the right track

Alice Wu says network glitches and construction delays are a sign the MTR must refocus on what it does best - running a great railway

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 2:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 2:32am

We have one of the most sophisticated rail systems in the world. When we see those empty buses emitting clouds of toxic black smoke, choking lungs and our road systems, we can be sure that they're not the reason we're the best city in the world for commuters. For a long time, our efficient railway system has been the pride of this city. Not any more, it seems.

It's true that despite the delays - both of actual trains and network expansions - we're still way ahead in every way, globally. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Keeping people moving, on time and safely, is paramount for our congested city. And it would seem it's time for the MTR Corporation to begin focusing again on what it does best.

It can start by getting back to basics - by putting Hong Kong first. Instead of preaching the gospel of the "rail-plus-property model" to the motherland and embarking on projects elsewhere, it needs to look to run a railway Hongkongers can be proud of.

We may be one of the world's hardest sets of commuters to please. We're impatient; we're good at counting our dollars and cents; and we demand exceptional service and really low fares at the same time. There's good reason for that, especially since the MTR Corp is a "half-public, half-private" company. That "half-half" status may or may not be fixed any time soon. The fact remains that the city's highly demanding commuters have helped the MTR Corp raise its game.

And it has been rewarded handsomely for its good work. It practically owns this city's public transport network and has been given land for property development.

No one knows this better than chief executive Jay Walder. When he left his last job as chairman and chief executive of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to come to Hong Kong, no one could blame him for leaving a financially troubled place for a cash-rich one. He resigned from that authority just hours after he announced it was cutting the administrative payroll by 15 per cent. The New York authority paid him US$350,000 a year; here, he's getting more than 4.5 times that amount.

It would be safe to say that Walder has enjoyed more than just a huge pay rise. We can't put a price on "benefit of the doubt" - a "gift" to him from transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who found out later it cost him dear.

Walder's contract with the MTR Corp won't be renewed after 2015, but he gets to keep his job and pay for now. Cheung, who once enjoyed steady and high public approval ratings and was considered to be a Beijing-acceptable democrat for the office of the chief executive, has turned out to be the biggest loser.

Under Walder's reign, the MTR Corp has suffered more than a few dents in its reputation. It's not just the government that has to be a better monitor. The MTR Corp, too, needs to shape up and fix the technical glitches that caused mass frustration, long before the high-speed railway delay scandal emerged.

A world-class railway that runs under the wrong leadership, with the luxury of few financial worries, can easily become a world-class screw-up.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA