The high expectations of Hong Kong commuters have rarely been so obviously shown than during the ongoing outcry over delays and breakdowns on the MTR. Commuters do have a right to be concerned and critical over disruptions and delays of as much as 50 minutes. But has the MTR-bashing of late spiralled out of control? Is the 16-year-old MTR finding it tougher to cope with the rising demands of an increasing number of passengers? Or is the world-renowned system simply a victim of its own success? One undoubted conclusion made by many experts and lawmakers is that the system was so successful during the early 1980s it became the backbone of the territory's transport system. Commuters were spoilt by its convenience. Ridership figures jumped from 155 million in its sophomore year 1980, to just under 500 million barely five years later. Executives left the Porsches and BMWs at home. Taxis raised fares and raised them further. Ferries and buses became 'inconvenient', stuffy (or chilly depending on season) and unfavourable alternatives to the system. The MTR became a household word. A way of life. Trains were pulling into most stations every five minutes at worst. And KCR passengers were able to continue by train all the way to Hong Kong Island. Service was speedy and comfortable, facilities were clean and stations were a mere 10 minutes walk from virtually anywhere. It became simple to predict what time you had to leave your home to arrive at work or a date on time. Services even continued to nearly all stations during typhoons. All this for a very reasonable fare. Tourists and business travellers were dumbfounded by its convenience. Hong Kong never had it better. But as the years rolled on, commuter numbers continued to rise along with the population. Platforms and trains were starting to become so crowded during rush hours the number of trains had to rise to meet the growing demand. But safety precautions with system capacity also had to be adhered to. Plans had to be drawn up to modify electronic signalling equipment to accommodate the extra trains, exceeding manufacturers' recommendations. Interim moves to control overcrowding came in the form of publicity promoting staggered working hours. The theory was simple enough; ease rush hour traffic by urging people to start and finish work at odd hours - but in practice the territory's predominantly office labour have little choice in this respect. A second harbour crossing was built to ease the notorious demand on the Central harbour crossing and Nathan Road corridor. But predictably, populations continued to boom. So platform assistants were employed and armed with rubber gloves and the occasional loud hailer, shepherding the hordes boarding trains which were rapidly becoming sardine cans on wheels. But the immaculately-maintained system rolled right on. Now in its mid-life, the plans to update signalling became applicable and work started early this year on the Tsuen Wan line. Engineers want to raise peak-hour frequencies by two more trains per hour to 34. The Kwun Tong and Island lines will also brandish the new equipment by the end of next year. But many of the problems of the past few months have been found to be related to 'teething problems' with the new system. In May, 37 people went to hospital with breathing problems after a track circuit failure caused a two-minute delay which was escalated to almost an hour, reportedly by panicking passengers pushing alarm buttons. Almost 70 delays, most minute, have been caused by signalling equipment since April, mostly due to teething problems with the updated systems. Alan Cooksey, the Deputy Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways in Britain, brought to the territory by Transport Secretary Gordon Siu Kwing-chue to look into the problems, made the findings last week. In his report, he outlined the problems as being caused through the company's attempts to update the system while continuing services. 'Many other metro systems around the world would have to close down while installing this equipment,' he said at a press conference, commending the company's efforts to keep the system running. He implied commuters and law-makers should be grateful for the company's valiant efforts - you can hardly ask 2.4 million daily commuters to find alternate transport to work for several days during the installation. But Mr Cooksey said a lot of the public anger and frustration could have been averted through an extensive publicity campaign. The MTRC should have highlighted the necessity for the signalling improvements and warned of the possible side-effects of their installation and testing - such as the spate of delays. Perhaps it was the mystery behind the niggling, repeated holdups that seemed to cause most irritation with commuters. The natural first thought for many was incompetence or the system breaking under the stress. Transport Advisory Committee chairman, Dr Raymond Ho Chung-tai, said he personally was affected on several occasions by the delays and his own staff were late to work. Legislators were angry too, and rightly so. Repeated demands for information from them, the press, the committee, the public, all seemed to fall on deaf ears with company replies of:'we apologise for the delay' followed by an assurance the problems were not related to any one source. The MTR has given a cool and calm response, welcoming Mr Cooksey's recommendations, acknowledging the public's lack of insight on the signal programme and ensuring improvements. But will the new signalling system be enough? By far, Mr Cooksey's most worrying finding was the urgent need for parallel lines to ease congestion on the Kwun Tong and the eastern part of the Island lines. 'In future, unless measures are taken to restrict demand on the MTR, a number of parts of it will become so excessively used that at best, the quality of service will decrease to an unacceptable level.' The company said it will liaise with authorities over possible new routes. But as work on the new airport and other new rail projects shows, it will take a decade before extensions can be designed, funded and agreed upon by the powers that be, let alone be constructed. Mr Cooksey believes major problems will occur within the decade, without the new routes. If commuters and law-makers find the problems of last month irritating and unacceptable, they should be aware that things will get worse before they improve.