Have MTR's Jay Walder and Chew Tai-chong been thrown to the wolves?
So, Jay Walder will now fall on his own sword. But the outgoing MTR boss will get close to HK$20 million for the trouble, which should considerably lessen the pain. This follows the premature retirement of Chew Tai-chong, the MTR's projects chief most directly responsible for failing to sound the alarm about delays to the HK$67 billion high-speed railway to Guangzhou.
Still, you can't get rid of the nagging feeling that the two men, however responsible, have been thrown to the wolves to save the honchos in government, the MTR's biggest shareholder, from further embarrassment and opprobrium. After all, what exactly were the two, especially Walder, guilty of besides failing to be fully transparent about the two-year delay to 2017? Walder had been the MTR's chief executive for over two years. Construction on the project started in 2010 as one of 10 mega-infrastructure projects started by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.
As the new CEO, Walder inherited a questionable timetable that seems more the outcome of political considerations to meet the opening of the mainland section of the project than a realistic engineering estimate. By the summer of last year, some newspapers were reporting possible delays.
Recently I met a group of non-MTR senior construction and engineering executives and they all said the delay was "industry knowledge" long before transport chief Anthony Cheung Bing-leung claimed he was told about it and was ready to inform the legislature in November last year had it not been for a last-minute phone call from Walder.
From the start, the high cost and 2014/15 completion date were questionable. Surely the MTR would have enough competent and experienced engineers who would demand due diligence for such a large project, yet it appears it was never conducted.
The MTR and the government are going softly-softly about who should pay for the cost overrun, having decided to finish the job first. Though the 2015 deadline was mentioned in the original contract, you would think the government would now wax indignant and demand the rail operator pay for the whole cost overrun if it didn't think there might be dirty laundry to air in the event of a court case.