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Hong Kong MTR

As an MTR project resumes, does it mean sinking safety standards in Hong Kong?

Albert Cheng says the government owes the public a clear explanation of why it has revised acceptable subsidence levels for the troubled Sha Tin-Central rail link project. Hong Kong is a city that values transparency, which Carrie Lam should keep in mind

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 7:42pm

Corporate governance of the MTR has been poor, and is deteriorating. Following the announcement in 2014 of the delay in the Express Rail Link project then the cost overrun, construction scandals have cropped up regularly and are getting out of hand. A derailment occurred during the testing of the high-speed railway and water seepage was found at the West Kowloon terminus. Delays often roil train services due to the failure of the signalling system.

The Sha Tin-Central rail link scandal broke earlier this year. It started with a revelation that corners – and steel bars – had been cut in the construction work on platforms beneath Hung Hom station. As controversy mounted, the chief executive formed a commission of inquiry led by a former non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal.

A project director and three general managers had to exit MTR. CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen and chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang resigned. The problems did not stop there: MTR admitted that more than 130 locations along the rail line, including those near the construction site for Exhibition Centre station, were sinking.

Meanwhile, the general public has high hopes that the government will follow up on the series of MTR scandals. On September 28, the authorities announced that works on Exhibition Centre would resume and that acceptable levels of subsidence would be relaxed for the Sha Tin-Central rail link project, from the range of 10mm to 25mm to a new range of 20mm to 95mm.

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Previously, 49 out of the 355 monitoring points near Exhibition Centre had reached or exceeded acceptable levels. A pavement sank by 75mm, which was alarmingly over the old limit but is acceptable within the new framework.

However, the new standards give the impression that the government is compromising the safety and quality of public works to avoid more overruns and delays. It has to yet to provide a satisfactory justification for the new arrangement.

Sure, subsidence is known to occur around construction sites. It is reasonable for the government to adjust standards after thorough communication with the MTR management, but what it is missing at the moment is a clear explanation to dispel confusion and misunderstanding.

Hong Kong is a city which values procedure and transparency. Before revising safety standards, the government should explain to the public why subsidence was found around the Sha Tin-Central rail link project sites. It should indicate whether the subsidence was caused by procedural and operational faults or design defects. It should take measures to stop the sinking too. Relevant departments should examine all affected buildings and file detailed reports on their structural status.

Surely a solution is needed to the ongoing problem of subsidence. If the government fails to come up with a plan and the sinking worsens to the point that the works have to be suspended again, it would be a slap in the face for the authorities.

That would further undermine the public’s confidence in public projects as well as the government itself. To show that the government is implementing its policies fairly, officials should make clear whether the same revised standards will apply to future public works.

If Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wishes to get the public on her side, one way is to maintain transparency and fairness in handling the Sha Tin-Central rail link scandal. If not, the administration is doomed to lose people’s hearts and minds.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator and a fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers. [email protected]