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Hong Kong MTR

Lessons must be learned from the high-speed rail fiasco

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 12:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 12:53am

Outrage is to be expected after the project to link Hong Kong with the national high-speed rail network was hit by delays and cost overruns again. The latest estimate is that the cost of the 26km Hong Kong section has ballooned to a staggering HK$85.3 billion, 30 per cent more than the original budget. The completion date has also been put back again to the third quarter of 2018.

The Mass Transit Railway Corporation has already come under fire for misleading the government and the public on the project's progress last year. It had previously revised the budget from HK$65 billion to HK$71.5 billion and delayed the opening from this year to 2017. That the cost has shot up by again in less than year - this time by nearly HK$14 billion - is baffling. The rail giant has again cited unforeseen technical problems and rising labour costs. One has to wonder why these had not been taken into account earlier.

The question of who should foot the bill has to be dealt with seriously. Describing the cost overrun as unacceptable, transport minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the government would not accept taxpayers paying for the MTR's inept project management. But whether he will act as tough as he talks remains to be seen. The courts may have to step in if both sides cannot settle who should pay. A legal battle will cost taxpayers more and is not what the public wants.

The spiralling budget has also sparked calls to abandon the project altogether. With already 70 per cent of the work done, the suggestion seems impractical. The right way forward is to adopt effective measures to contain costs and prevent delays.

Given the shortage of labour, the government should adopt a more liberal regime towards importing more workers.

Hong Kong used to be the envy of the world when it came to building major public infrastructure. But the controversies have exposed serious inadequacies on the part of MTRC and the government. The setbacks come with a heavy price, and we have to make sure lessons are learned.