MTR bosses face grilling from lawmakers over rail link delays as project director quits
Lawmakers to question bosses over repeated claims cross-border line would be completed on time as project chief reveals he is retiring
Samuel Chan and Toh Han Shih
The MTR board of directors has set up an independent committee to review management of the high-speed railway project.
The committee will be chaired by Professor Frederick Ma Si-hang, and other members include Brian Stevenson, Jockey Club chairman, Alasdair Morrison, senior advisor of Citigroup Asia Pacific, Dr Dorothy Chan Yuen Tak-fai, head of Centre for Logistic and Transport, lawmaker Abraham Razack, and architect Edward Ho Sing-tin.
"Having heard the many opinions and views expressed recently in the community, board members feel there is a need to conduct a more detailed assessment of the causes of the delay, and why the impacts on the opening date and budget had not been clearly highlighted to the board," said Dr Raymond Chien Kuo-fung, MTR non-executive chairman.
Lawmakers have been demanding to know whether the MTR Corporation lied when it claimed its HK$67 billion cross-border railway project was on track last year.
Members of the Legislative Council's rail subcommittee visited the site of the line's West Kowloon terminus yesterday and learned that excavation had reached only three storeys below ground - six months after MTR bosses told them diggers had reached basement level four.
Pan-democratic and Beijing-loyalist lawmakers slammed MTR chiefs after their visit to West Kowloon.
Subcommittee chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun said: "They told us last November … that they had finished the construction down to basement four, which is the lowest point [at] both the northern and southern end [of the terminus].
"But today they are telling us that [at the north end] it was only down to level three, and they discovered a huge rock formation at level four."
Tougher-than-expected geological conditions were cited as one reason for the delay, along with damage to a tunnel boring machine in a storm last month.
In its twice-a-year progress report to the subcommittee in November, the MTR said: "For the northern part of the [terminus], excavation works reached the lowest level B4 and construction of the main structure by bottom-up approach continued."
Tien, a former chairman of rail operator KCRC before it was merged into the MTR Corporation, asked: "Was somebody lying to the Legco last November? Was there a cover-up?"
He said he would demand answers when MTR management face the committee on Monday.
He was concerned the railway would be delayed even further, as MTR bosses had told him they had not yet decided how to overcome the engineering difficulties.
It was unclear how much the costs would go up on a railway that is already costing HK$2.6 billion for each of its 26 kilometres.
Tien claimed MTR told him no groundwork investigations had been carried out at the site.
Fellow subcommittee member Gary Fan Kwok-wai also hit out at the MTR and said he would propose invoking Legco's investigative powers to force the MTR to hand over documents.
Tien said he was against the proposal, while fellow Beijing loyalists, Wong Kwok-hing and Ben Chan Han-pan, said they would decide on further actions after Monday's meeting.
Speaking during a radio interview this morning, he also cast doubt on whether anyone would want to take up Chew's vacant position as project director when he leaves in October.
“I really can’t imagine who will be willing to take over handling this hot potato,” Tien said, “Any sensible person would know that he would be responsible for any further delays once he takes up the job.”
He fears the candidates would be deterred if they have any doubt whether the MTRC has informed them of all the facts relating to the latest work progress of the high-speed railway.
Acting Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said today the government is highly concerned about the construction delay and is taking the matter very seriously.
Transport chief Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung would closely monitor the issue and would contact the MTR and read internal documents, she said. The government would brief the Legislative Council’s railway committee on May 5.
MTR Corp refused to comment ahead of Monday's meeting. The Transport and Housing Bureau yesterday said it had demanded the MTR "set the record straight".
Meanwhile the corporation's projects director, Chew Tai-chong, said he would retire on October 28. His decision comes a fortnight after it was revealed the project would be delayed for two years, and Chew repeatedly insisted the cross-border link was on schedule to be finished next year.
End of the line for boss blamed over express link delay
Chew Tai-chong, who is retiring early as the MTR Corporation's projects director, had to take responsibility for the delay to the cross-border express and the fact that it was not made public earlier, a consultant who has known him for years said yesterday.
"The fact that it wasn't revealed to the public and other directors beforehand means someone has to take responsibility. It has to be TC [Chew]," the engineering consultant said. "He's the most senior person directly responsible for the delivery of the high-speed railway."
The consultant was commenting after the 62-year-old's early departure was announced yesterday, just over a week after the MTR revealed that completion of the high-speed link would be delayed from 2015 to 2017.
Many people involved had known for at least the past 12 months that it would not be finished on time, "but the MTR kept maintaining it could", he said.
On July 14, 2010, the Post quoted Chew as saying the MTR was capable of completing the project on time and within its HK$67 billion budget.
"He's very much a hands-on man," the consultant said of Chew. "He probably found it difficult to delegate as well as his predecessor Russell Black. As a manager, Chew's going to be judged against the performance of his predecessors."
The MTR has experienced delays in previous rail projects, but was able to better manage the publicity surrounding them.
Chew succeeded Black as projects director on the day he stepped down in 2010. But the MTR has yet to find a replacement for Chew. He was appointed for a three-year term which was renewed for another three years in February last year. Yesterday, the MTR announced he would retire on October 28, almost a year and a half early. Chew cited "personal reasons".
From 2003 to 2008, he was president of the London Underground projects division of Canadian transport equipment maker Bombardier. Before that he was senior director of projects and engineering for the Singapore Land Transit Authority. He has worked in rail for over 30 years.
Chew, a Malaysian, holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in Britain.
He did not respond to inquiries from the Post last night.