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  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 7:03am
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Rail link farce as head of inquiry into MTR high-speed train delay quits

Professor given task of leading independent investigation into controversy is found to be on the board of one of the project's key contractors

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 May, 2014, 3:18am

Controversy over the delayed HK$67 billion high-speed rail link descended into farce last night.

The man appointed by the government to head up an independent probe into the row resigned after it emerged he was on the board of one of the project's main contractors.

The move came two hours after government minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung announced that former University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor, Professor Lee Chack-fan, would chair an expert investigative panel.

Lee was then revealed to be an independent non-executive director of Paul Y Engineering, a key contractor on the rail link's underground terminus in West Kowloon, where excavation difficulties have been pinpointed by the MTR Corporation as being at the centre of the delay.

Lee, a respected geo-technical engineer and past president of the Hong Kong Academy of Engineering Sciences, could not be contacted for comment. But the Transport and Housing Bureau - of which Cheung is the head - confirmed Paul Y was awarded two contracts on the project and said it was not aware of Lee's role in the company when it invited him to lead the probe. The bureau said it would appoint a suitable expert as early as possible.

A government source admitted the appointment was a "hiccup" and said: "We value the panel's credibility so we accepted his resignation as soon as we knew about it."

Cheung's announcement was seen as an attempt to save the government from accusations of a possible cover-up by the corporation over the two-year delay to the railway to Guangzhou. It came as the MTR Corporation admitted it was confident it could cope with the project's challenges in a report submitted to Legco yesterday.

The expert panel was set up in addition to an internal probe pledged by the corporation on Tuesday. But Cheung denied it was a delaying tactic to head off public criticism. Pan-democrat lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said he now had little confidence in the inquiry into the controversy.

The corporation apologised yesterday for not providing proper communication regarding the delays. But a source close to the MTR insisted there had been no cover-up as the management had been informed by its projects director, Chew Tai-chong, that the difficulties facing the project could be overcome.

"The management was still informed that the project would meet the deadline in December last year," the source said.

While worrying that further delay could be caused by lawmakers who plan to launch an investigation by invoking the Legislative Council's special powers and privileges, the source said the corporation would open its project documents - including contracts - to lawmakers who are willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

It will also accept recommendations from the expert panel.

Although two special powers and privileges proposals by pan-democrats were voted down yesterday, lawmakers said they would not rule out trying to invoke the powers again.


Rail delay revelation blocked in November

The government had wanted to tell the public that the high-speed railway project could not be completed on time as early as November, but it was stopped by the MTR, a report has revealed.

The report, prepared by the Transport and Housing Bureau and submitted to the Legislative Council last night, revealed that transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung knew that the tunnelling works could only be completed by October next year at the earliest, meaning the target opening date of end-2015 may not be met.

He had wanted to inform the Legislative Council's railways subcommittee on November 22, but MTR chief executive Jay Walder asked him not to reveal the information, saying it was still feasible to complete all the works on schedule.

The government report also said the Highways Department had asked the MTR to present a detailed plan to show how the works could be finished on time, even before flooding in Yuen Long damaged a tunnel boring machine. The MTR described the incident as a "critical point" when it announced the delay on April 15.

The MTR was supposed to submit the plan in April before the deadline was extended to this month. After the delay was announced on April 15, the department again asked the MTR for the plan, but to no avail.

Another report submitted by the MTR discloses that the company may have to seek extra funding for the project after conceding that the original HK$67 billion budgeted may no longer be enough. A confidential document seen earlier by the Post showed the project could now cost up to HK$69 billion.

The MTR said it would inform the government in a timely manner if it needed more money.

The government said if the MTR had breached its agreement, it could be asked to pay the extra costs itself, and the government could seek damages from the MTR.The company conceded that its teams were "over-confident" that the project could be completed on time.

"Even though it was evident that the project may not be completed in 2015 as scheduled based on the accumulated delay of a few contracts, the engineering team still reported to the MTR board and the government that it would be delivered on time for a certain period of time."

Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said the report showed the government, which has a 76 per cent stake in the MTR, was losing control of the corporation. He will consider invoking the Legislative Council's special powers to investigate.

New People's Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said the document raised questions about why the government trusted everything projects director Chew Tai-chong told it, without looking into the possible delay.

Ada Lee

 

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This article is now closed to comments

daily
This is incredible............all along, we are all aware that HK government officials are incompetent at doing their job. Now we even know they are incapable of appointing others to do government-related jobs.
This is so embarrassing, that there are no words to describe the HK government at this point.
HK-Lover
And Professor Lee should give up his professorship because he doesn't seem to be integer person and fit enough to carry such responsibility as of being a professor because he should have had refused the offer from the government from the very beginning because of conflict of interest.
And Cheung should ask himself and his highly paid underlings why they haven't fulfilled their duty in checking for any conflict of interest before appointing anybody into any position.
johnyuan
When comes to appoint anyone who is not intrinsically related to a matter or issue, Hong Kong seems invariably unable to find someone who is independent. Either Hong Kong has too small a population or the number of ‘experts’ is small or they are everywhere in one committee or another.
.
The 'hiccup' in appointing the wrong guy here is that Minister Cheung is thinking too narrowly. We don’t need a geological expert to head the investigation of the delay. The importance of the investigation should focus why is the delay not communicated to the government and hence public in a timely manner. A fair-minded capable person unrelated to the project would be the right candidate to head the investigation.
dynamco
//hk-magazine.com/city-living/article/new-railway-cost-efficient-and-convenient
So you think you’re going to Guangzhou?
Nope. The government claims the new railway will terminate in Guangzhou. But that’s not quite right. While the existing Guangzhou East Station is in fact in the city center, this new railway will terminate in the new Guangzhou Passenger Station, will is located in the Panyu District, a suburb 30-45 minutes from the city center.
The Train to Nowhere: At a Glance
We already have a fast, cheap train to Guangzhou. So how does the new one measure up?
Time to Guangzhou city center on existing train: 1hr 50 mins
Time to Guangzhou suburb Panyu on the new train: 48 mins
Time from Panyu to Guangzhou city center: 30 mins
Estimated total journey time to Guangzhou city center on new train: 1hr 18 mins
Maximum time saved by new rail link: 32 mins
Total estimated cost of the new train: $63 billion MONEY OF THE DAY - NOW MUCH MORE
Previously promised cost of the new train: $39.5 billion OF COURSE WOULD NEVER HAPPEN
Individual cost to each Hong Kong taxpayer: $9,000
//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangzhou_South_Railway_Station
//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong_Kong_Express_Rail_Link
r6b
Why the absurd obsession with the high speed rail line project ?
There are still seats available on the through trains from Hung Hom, so while the new high speed rail will hopefully be of value to HK in the future, its clearly not an overdue piece of infrastructure as are the other on going rail projects.
The truth is – it’s the least important of the 5 rail projects under construction at this time.
The remaining 4, Kennedy Town extension, Whampoa extension, South Island line, and Shatin central line, are of immense value to HK commuters. Collectively, they will save 10’s of thousands of commuters up to 10 hours a week “sardined” into busses stalled in traffic jams.
In addition to speeding up commutes, they will minimize roadside pollution – something that will benefit everyone, now that air pollution has been recognized as a leading cause of premature deaths.
What should be investigated is how and why bureaucratic procrastination has lead to all 5 rail projects being constructed concurrently, instead of evenly spacing them in sequence
over the last 10 – 15 years. Is it any wonder that material prices have shot up, or that skilled labour is in short supply ?
The Kowloon Station jobsite rock that’s proving difficult to remove, is a perfect symbol for Legco’s own lethargic performance.
dynamco
appoint the attack dog heads of the losing tendering companies to lead the enquiry
then we will get right into the woodwork
bring in an overseas truly independent expert to oversee the attack dogs
this way we will get to the truth the MTR & Govt seek to hide
How About
This, CY Leung, is not cool!
.
We would have liked to have accountability and not blood letting. If this is the best you and your team can do to not stir the civil-servants' retirement club aka MTR, then you might want to retire Mr. Cheung as well. We all know when you were studying in UK Humphrey Appleby and Jim Hacker was all the rage but this is not proper for the real HKSAR government in 2014.
.
Stop wasting more taxpayers' coffer on useless whitewash enquiries, do a decisive stop loss for a change!
.
ann.wei.121
The whole Hong Kong high-speed rail project is a pork-barrel scandal.
rpasea
Time for Cheung to resign. I agree with johnyuan in that the last thing we need is a geotechnical expert: we aren't going to be studying boring logs of ground investigations! We need someone who can cut to the chase to find out why this issue was not brought up earlier.
williechow
Farce? Did the reporter and editor just learn a new word and were anxious to use it?
SCMP simply cannot help but interject editorial comments in its news reporting.
The only thing farcical is the reporting.

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