Hong Kong MTR

MTR's 'independent' panel to probe cross-border rail delay branded a 'silly' idea

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 6:17pm

The MTR board has set up an "independent" committee of non-executive directors to review management of the delayed cross-border express railway and find out why it was not briefed earlier on the problems.

This was announced yesterday as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said officials would examine internal documents so they could brief lawmakers next month.

MTR chairman Dr Raymond Chien Kuo-fung said: "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."

But the announcement did not placate legislators, who have slammed the corporation for not disclosing the delay earlier.

Wu Chi-wai, of the Democratic Party, said the committee was independent in name only and its establishment was "silly".

"The board is at fault as well [for not knowing] about the delay earlier," he said, urging the government to launch its own probe.

Michael Tien Puk-sun - who has suggested the MTR might have lied to lawmakers about the project's progress - stuck to his stance despite the railway saying it was a misunderstanding.

Chaired by former commerce chief Professor Frederick Ma Si-hang, the five-man review committee also involves Jockey Club chairman Brian Stevenson, senior adviser of Citigroup Asia Pacific Alasdair Morrison, head of the Centre for Logistics and Transport Dr Dorothy Chan Yuen Tak-fai and architect Edward Ho Sing-tin.

The developments came a day after it was announced that MTR projects director Chew Tai-chong would leave in October, more than a year before his contract ends. That followed the disclosure that opening of the link would be delayed to 2017.

MTR deputy general manager Maggie So Man-kit apologised for any "misunderstanding" caused by the "unclear choice of words" in briefing lawmakers in November but said there was no intention to mislead them.

Explosives 'may solve railway's problems'

Explosives could blast through complex rock formations at West Kowloon up to three times as quickly as drilling, structural engineers say - but the government may not be so keen.

The MTR Corporation yesterday said it was studying the feasibility of blasting as it looked to overcome unexpectedly tough geological conditions at the terminus of the HK$67 billion high-speed line to Guangzhou.

"The government has always been very careful when it comes to blasting operations in urban areas," said Dr Hung Wing-tat, an expert in civil and structural engineering at Polytechnic University. The concern is that nearby buildings and roads could be damaged. One of the West Kowloon site's closest neighbours is the city's tallest building, the 484-metre International Commerce Centre. It is also close to rail and road tunnels, busy streets and wealthy residential areas.

But Hung said that, based on the MTR's description of the problem when it announced a two-year delay to the railway a fortnight ago, blasting may be a viable option. The MTR says the terminus site sits atop boulders rather than a single stretch of rock so, according to Hung, a blast wave would not be transmitted to nearby structures. "But it's hard to say how much faster blasting will be as it depends on the quantity of explosives [the MTR] is allowed to use per day," he said.

Hung believes blasting will cost at least twice as much as drilling, as explosives will have to be bought and experts hired, while construction workers would have to clear up.

But Dr Greg Wong Chak-yan, a former president of the Institution of Engineers, believes trying to drill through boulders would be more expensive. He argues that, with a precise calculation of the amount of force the built structures at the terminus could withstand, blasting would not pose a problem for them.

Wong says that the final cost will inevitably be higher than it would have been had the MTR Corp identified the complicated geological conditions at West Kowloon sooner. As well as working out how to get through the rock itself, the rail operator will also have to compensate contractors for the delays.

Identifying the problem sooner may also have led to a milder reaction from the public, Wong said. The announcement that the railway's completion would be delayed from next year to 2017 prompted anger from the public and lawmakers, who believe the company may not have provided the full picture on its progress.

Blasting was previously touted by engineers as a solution to another problem delaying the railway: damage to a tunnel-boring machine in recent heavy rain.

MTR said it had yet to apply for permission to blast and would study all possible solutions for the site with the government.

People living nearby would be consulted before blasting took place, the MTR's deputy general manager Maggie So Man-kit said.