Transport minister takes blame for mix-up over head of panel to probe MTR project delay
Background of academic appointed to chair probe of express rail link delays was not checked, though he is a director of a contractor
Transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung yesterday took the blame for failing to check the background of the academic who quit as chairman of a panel to investigate delays in the high-speed railway just two hours after his appointment.
Professor Lee Chack-fan, a former University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor, was appointed on Friday afternoon to head the panel of experts charged with studying exchanges between the government and the MTR on the express rail link to Guangzhou.
He quit after it was revealed that he was an independent non-executive director of Paul Y Engineering, a key contractor for the project's troubled West Kowloon terminus.
In a light-hearted response to reporters' questions on why the government appointed Lee, Cheung said: "There's really not much to say on this. It's my bad."
He said the bureau contacted Lee, a respected geotechnical engineer, a few days before the announcement to ask him whether he could help the inquiry.
The bureau asked him about his academic and engineering experience but was not aware of his affiliations with engineering companies, Cheung said.
Lee did not tell the bureau about his role in Paul Y, he added.
"I don't know why such a mistake was made," Cheung said, appearing embarrassed. "The expert panel has not been formally established yet, and now we will endeavour to look for members."
He said the government and the MTR, which is 76 per cent government-owned, had had very different views on the progress of the project - with the MTR remaining confident.
Reports prepared by the MTR and the government and submitted to the Legislative Council show that contractors estimated in April last year that the terminus would not be completed before June 2016. The project was to have been finished next year.
In June, the MTR realised that the 2015 finish could only be met if the railway was opened in stages, with only six of 15 platforms at the terminus initially in use. Its executive committee endorsed the new schedule the next month but the Transport Department was not informed until September.
The department did not indicate agreement to the proposal and asked the MTR to provide further information. In October, the MTR told contractors for the terminus to produce a project plan based on the partial-opening scenario.
The MTR then proposed to the government in November that only one of the two tunnels would be open in the initial stage, serving trains going in both directions. The government did not agree to the plan.
The government had wanted to inform the Legislative Council about the project's possible delay that same month, but was stopped by a phone call from MTR chief executive Jay Walder.
It was announced last month that the opening date of the railway would be delayed to 2017.