Panel probing high-speed rail project 'not looking for individuals to be penalised'

Carrie Lam says objective is to uncover 'systemic' problems, as she appoints top judge to replace academic who quit over a suspected conflict of interest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 2:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 3:15am

A senior judge has been appointed to head a three-man government panel inquiring into delays in building the high-speed railway to Guangzhou.

The appointment of Mr Justice Michael Hartmann, a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, follows the embarrassment of original chairman Professor Lee Chack-fan stepping down within two hours of his appointment because of a conflict of interest.

The project has been further rocked by an MTR report showing that a broken tunnelling machine - blamed in part for the two-year delay to the HK$67 billion project - was already out of action when it was further damaged by a flood in March.

The other panel members are Peter Hansford, chief construction adviser to the British government, and Andrew Whittle, a professor of civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. Announcing Hartmann's appointment yesterday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor confirmed the panel members had no conflict of interest. Lee stepped down because he is a director of Paul Y Engineering, one of the project contractors.

Lam said the independent expert panel's main task was to identify what had gone wrong with the project, not to look for who was personally responsible. "[But if the panel] comes across issues relating to how individuals have performed, then I suspect [it] will also report on those findings," she said.

Hartmann, who also chairs the Securities and Futures Appeals Tribunal and the Market Misconduct Tribunal, said he was "quite happy" to accept the appointment and "deal with matters that affect the public and are important to the public".

Asked whether his panel should have the power to find out who should be held responsible, he said: "It's probably for other people to think whether we should have more or less power."

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that if anyone was found to be at fault, the government would pursue the matter.

In a paper submitted to the Legislative Council yesterday, the MTR said repairs to the tunnelling machine further damaged by flooding in March would take another nine months.

A government report said Chew Tai-chong, projects director of the MTR, had raised the alarm about a possible delay before MTR chief executive Jay Walder called transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung in November to persuade him not to tell Legco because the delay could still be made up.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung