Pan-democrats are threatening to delay passage of legislation authorising a merger of Hong Kong's railway systems, saying more time is needed to scrutinise what they called the unusually harsh penalties passengers would face.
They fear the proposal to apply to the merged operation the penalties in KCR bylaws - which are harsher than those in MTR bylaws, and include up to six months' jail for swearing on trains and a fine of HK$5,000 for putting one's feet on the seats - amounts to an abuse of passengers' freedoms.
Government allies are concerned that any delay in passing the bill and its subsidiary legislation could delay the merger, and the reduction in train fares it will bring. The Legislative Council goes into recess in July.
The government allies outvoted pan-democrats at a meeting yesterday of Legco's House Committee, which decided the Rail Merger Bill would be given its second and third readings on June 6. The majority voted to form a subcommittee to study subsidiary legislation.
The bill will authorise a merger of the rail operations of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation and the MTR Corporation, which plans to call a shareholders' meeting in the summer to discuss the plan.
Several pan-democrats questioned the decision to call votes on the bill on June 6. Democrat Andrew Cheng Kar-foo said there was no reason to rush the usual scrutiny process, especially when civil liberties were at stake.
'I am concerned about the unusually harsh and controversial penalties, such as jail terms for swearing and HK$2,000 fines for jumping queues, which would need more time for us to study in detail. The MTR Corp can cut its fares any time before the bill is passed,' he said.
The government said the bill would bring penalties for both train operators into line.
The maximum penalty for using abusive language on KCR trains is six months' imprisonment; on MTR trains, it is a HK$5,000 fine.
On the merged rail network, queue jumpers would face fines of up to HK$2,000, loiterers a fine of up to HK$5,000 fine and up to three months in jail, and someone guilty of bringing animals into railway premises a fine of up to HK$5,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
With Legco needing at least a month to scrutinise subsidiary legislation after the merger bill is passed, Mr Cheng called for a week's delay on the bill's second and third readings and an extension of the time for scrutiny of subsidiary legislation, which is supposed to end by July 11, when the Legco session ends.
If that happens, the merger bill could not take effect until Legco resumes sitting in October.