The government has given the MTR Corp until tomorrow to explain what happened during Monday night's severe typhoon, when passengers were left to spend the night in stations and trains or brave the wild conditions after falling trees damaged power cables. Transport Secretary Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung was right to demand an early explanation. Given that typhoon signals are not an infrequent seasonal occurrence, there is no excuse for the city's biggest transport operator to be found wanting in back-up transport and other contingency measures when worst comes to worst, as it inevitably does.
This marks a change for Hong Kong Observatory, which has borne the brunt of criticism in recent typhoon postmortems. On one notable occasion, it raised typhoon signal No 3, based on expected wind strengths on the harbour, which failed to predict more severe conditions in parts of the New Territories and at the airport. On another occasion, we escaped bad weather after it raised a No 8 signal that sent workers scurrying home, prompting criticism from employers and business leaders.
Wind predictions are now more widely based, raising the prospect of more No 8 signals. In any case, there is evidence of growing complacency about them, which may be one reason so many people were out and about several hours after it was raised about at 6pm on Monday. Another, of course, is that the MTR continues operating as normal during a signal eight.
In the event, the observatory raised the No 9 signal at 11.20pm and the hurricane signal No 10 at 12.45am, for the first time in 13 years. The situation at East Rail MTR stations was chaotic. Stranded passengers slept on the floor on cardboard mats provided by MTR staff. Some blamed the lack of information and shuttle buses.
An MTR spokesman said it was the best arrangement for the safety of the passengers. But it did not reflect a proactive response to progressive warnings during the day and night of seriously deteriorating conditions. Cheung has already said he believes better back-up and supplies could have been provided. Emergency bus transport has to be part of contingency planning.
To earlier generations, the typhoon warning system was a signal to batten down. Nowadays we may be less vulnerable, with resilient buildings, mostly stabilised slopes and a rail system that can operate safely in all but the very worst conditions. We may therefore be less likely to follow the herd instinct to seek safety. But nature is unpredictable and weather forecasting remains an imprecise science. Severe Typhoon Vicente is a reminder that we ignore warnings at our peril, and that public services must be prepared for the worst.