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Hong Kong MTR

MTR has to get back on track now that heads have rolled

A spate of construction scandals has put the reputation of the once proud rail operator to the test and it is time for public confidence to be restored

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 9:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 11:10pm

The abrupt removal of a few top executives over the construction scandals at the city’s most expensive railway project is a case of déjà vu. What sets it apart from previous sagas involving the MTR Corporation is the high-profile intervention from the government. Resolute and necessary as it is, the purge is just the first of many more steps needed to address a wealth of deep-rooted problems. From corporate governance of the MTR to government monitoring of works projects, the need for an overhaul is evident.

That the government has belatedly woken up to the severity of the problems with the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link is to be regretted. Shoddy works found at a key station first came to light two months ago, and answers are still needed regarding “huge discrepancies” and “conflicting reports” in MTR Corp explanations of the works and their subsequent endorsement by professionals in charge. Equally puzzling is the role of the main contractor. We trust the criminal investigation by police will leave no stones unturned.

The sackings are not the first of their kind. Heads rolled over the ballooning cost of the West Rail communication system in 2002 and more followed in recent years with delays and cost overruns at the cross-border high speed rail link. Accountability aside, there is need for reform. As previous incidents revealed, there seemed to be a tendency for management to keep the government and the MTR Corp board of directors in the dark until the problems mounted. Regrettably, that culture appears to still prevail.

Corporate carnage costs MTR its reputation

New management will have a hard time putting the MTR house in order, and whoever takes over has to ensure the line is safe to use. The appointment of three former government officials as project advisers is a positive step, but the opportunity to overhaul corporate governance must not be missed. The pursuit of responsibility should not just stop there. The shoddy works would have remained unnoticed had the media not exposed them, and this underlines inadequacies not only in reporting within the company, but also on the part of government. The role of the latter in overseeing mega infrastructure projects must be reviewed by a commission of inquiry appointed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The MTR Corp was seen as a world-class operator until recently, but the spate of construction scandals has put its reputation to the test. At stake is not only the credibility of the rail giant, but also that of the government. If the rail project team deserved to be dismissed because the administration had lost confidence, the public is entitled to feel the same about government performance. How to safeguard standards and restore public confidence will be of critical importance to the MTR and the administration.