The government was giving the MTR "the benefit of the doubt" when it decided not to inform lawmakers about a possible delay in completing the high-speed railway to Guangzhou, transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said yesterday.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of Legco's railway committee tomorrow - in which the government and the MTR face a grilling by lawmakers on the saga - Cheung denied accusations that he was conspiring with the MTR to cover up the delay.
Lawmakers are planning to try to invoke Legco's powers to investigate the fiasco and table a motion of no confidence against Cheung.
They are also calling on MTR chief executive Jay Walder to quit. He is due to attend tomorrow's meeting along with MTR chairman Raymond Chien Kuo-fung.
Walder and Chien have made no comment on the delay since it was announced on April 15.
A report by Cheung's bureau submitted to Legco on Friday revealed that the government had wanted to tell lawmakers that the railway may not be ready next year - as scheduled - at a Legco meeting in November.
Cheung said the bureau held an urgent meeting with Walder after the phone call, but they could not reach a consensus.
"The bureau thought the MTR was being too optimistic, and we kept urging the MTR to explain why they thought it was still possible to open the railway in 2015," he said.
Cheung's undersecretary, Yau Shing-mu, told lawmakers the following day that the major works could be completed within 2015 and the testing and trial runs would take another six to nine months.
Cheung said yesterday: "MTR had its own assessment and judgment about how to make up time. Sometimes, different engineers can have different conclusions, so I said I would give them the benefit of doubt.
"In hindsight, we know the progress was lagging behind. But at that time, in November, we were exchanging views in a pragmatic manner."
He was surprised when the MTR later informed him the railway would not be running until 2017 because he had not expected a two-year delay.
Cheung turned a deaf ear to reporters' questions about whether Walder should be removed from his post.
Former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping said it was "evident" that the government was conspiring with the MTR to cover up the delay.
Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said he would consider invoking Legco's special powers to probe the saga and table a motion of no confidence against Cheung.