The MTR is efficient, but will it be able to keep up with the city's social changes?

Hong Kong's public transport system is the envy of transport officials the world over, but demands upon it are growing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 November, 2014, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 November, 2014, 5:35pm

From its appearance, it's difficult to believe that the nondescript building in Tsing Yi houses the Mass Transit Railway Corporation's nerve centre. Inside, huge rectangular screens are arranged on a curved wall, with subway lines represented by white dots, and short lines of moving fuchsia dots indicating the trains. Below are multiple screens showing the platforms of various stations, also in real time. Rows of staff members in yellow jackets sit quietly watching computer monitors.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the MTR is an efficient system that's the envy of almost every other city in the world. It's a 24-hour operation and, despite a number of glitches reported over the past year, boasted an on-time performance rate of 99.9 per cent in the first half of 2014. The shortfall accounts for the times when trains were more than five minutes late.

The MTR is practically the only mode of transport for millions of people, and became increasingly so during the first several weeks of the Occupy protests. Daily use rose to an average of 5.3 million passengers, up 20 per cent. There was a gap between trains of less than two minutes to move commuters as quickly as possible.

This efficiency is often taken for granted. Before the protests, the MTR Corp came under fire for its handling of incidents ranging from technical problems to tensions between local and mainland passengers. Particular criticism was levelled at the handling of a stray dog on the tracks at Sheung Shui station, which led to the animal's death.

But the railway company has even greater challenges ahead. As the government projects up to 100 million annual visitors to the city by 2023, many of whom will use public transport, questions are being raised over how the MTR will be able to move them all.

Mark Mihorean, assistant professor of business education at University of Science and Technology, insists that the MTR is a world-class service and that critics are often quick to jump on the negatives.

"It is 99 per cent on time, efficient, and safe," he says. "But what critics pick up on are incidents where people are not given the information they are looking for. I chuckle when I hear the recording say, 'Please mind the gap', because there is a gap that needs to be narrowed in how they do things at the MTR."

In the control room, Alan Cheng Kwan-hing, head of operating - west region, who has worked at the MTR Corp since it was founded, explains everyone's duties, from the two traffic controllers to the communications control console and engineering staff. He also explains some of the glitches the service has been experiencing.

He says incidents of track circuit failure are related to a blown fuse. When this happens, an electronic card needs to be replaced, either in the control room or at the track. This takes longer to access by foot and may explain why passengers complain that staff have not been able to answer questions, and no specific messages have been broadcast. Passengers only discover the nature of the problem later, through the media.

According to operations manager - operations network control, Cheung Chi-keung, a recorded message is broadcast every three minutes to alert passengers that the corporation is working on the problem, and to inform about delays. "The problem may already be solved by the time we broadcast it in three languages - Cantonese, English and Putonghua," he says. "Some people may be engrossed in their smartphones, or wearing headphones, so they don't see or hear the public announcements."

When delays run longer than eight minutes, the MTR Corp is obliged to alert the media, while in more serious cases, the customer service rapid response unit kicks in, organising shuttle buses and advising passengers where to get them. This can take 20 to 30 minutes.

But Mihorean, who has studied the business operations of the MTR Corp, and Cathay Pacific Airways, among others, says it's important to manage passengers' expectations with more communication.

"It is no longer satisfactory to wait until the problem is solved to broadcast the information, or to just say it's a technical problem. People can film things with their smartphones, they can upload pictures on Facebook and WeChat. We expect more from companies. Information needs to be faster and accurate," he says.

The death of the stray dog at Sheung Shui in August caused an uproar, with members of the public criticising the corporation for not doing enough to capture the animal. Commuters posted pictures of the dog on social media, and images of staff trying to help the animal by lowering a chair down to it drew derisive comments.

Service was suspended for six minutes, and commuters with animal handling experience offered to help. But Cheng says safety is of primary concern so the MTR Corp doesn't want passengers on the tracks. 

"We feel sorry that we couldn't save the dog," he says. "But afterwards we put together a taskforce to review the incident. We approached animal organisations for advice, as not every staff member has experience in dealing with animals. So now we have a new procedure for when there are animals on the tracks."

Cheng adds that the procedure will be reviewed in a year's time, and admits that fencing along the track may need to be improved.

Nevertheless, Mihorean says animals straying onto the tracks should have been anticipated.

"The MTR managed to alienate those angry at any kind of delay, groups who are more tolerant, and animal lovers," he says. "People uploaded pictures before there was an announcement of a 'technical delay'. That is accurate, but times are changing, and more transparency is needed along with the accuracy. It's the 'CNN effect' - you can't hide things from people."

Mihorean adds that the animal care group SPCA or the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department should have been called in to advise on the situation.

We feel sorry that we couldn't save the dog ... now we have a procedure
Alan Cheng, MTR Head of Operating - West Region

"The station officer made the call to abandon this [attempt to help the dog] and keep the trains running. So much for their tagline, 'Caring for life's journeys'," Mihorean says.

By contrast, he cites a situation in Brooklyn, in the US, last August when two kittens were found on the tracks. This caused services to be suspended on two lines for two hours.

"They announced they were trying to rescue the kittens and got a lot of sympathy for that," he says. "In Hong Kong, 75,000 people signed a petition for the dog and held a mock funeral. Only then did the MTR apologise, and it was too late."

MTR staff are more often pulled into disputes between locals and mainlanders, which stem from eating and drinking in carriages, or children urinating and defecating.

Cheng says most of these incidents occur on the East Rail line. Frontline staff are trained to defuse disputes, and in most cases invite both parties to leave the train. In rare cases, staff will call police for help.

The MTR also broadcasts regular announcements - in three languages - instructing passengers not to eat and drink on the trains. "We could give them a ticket, but we don't want to create conflicts so we try to educate them," he says.

Mihorean suggests that the MTR could have "roving ambassadors" like those employed when the Airport Express began operating in 1997. "They need more visibility of staff walking up and down the trains to enforce the rules, so that passengers don't feel alone and that this really is the regulation of the MTR."

This could become increasingly necessary as passenger numbers rise. The MTR Corp will see capacity increase with the addition of three lines opening in 2018: South Island, East-West and Sha Tin to Central.

To cope with rising demand, particularly since the Occupy protests began, the company has implemented new measures, Cheng says. The number of people entering stations can be controlled by shutting entry gates, and turning off escalators to prevent bottlenecks at the bottom, and the number of trains can be increased.

"We try to maintain a downgraded service rather than shut down the entire system," Cheung says. "It is not our choice, but safety is our first concern, so we go slowly."

Other measures, taken during rush hour, include deploying more staff to encourage passengers to move further down the platform.

They also ask commuters to move inside the carriages to allow more people to board the train.

"If the doors open and close three times, that's about 10 seconds gone where we could have had another train come by," Cheng says. "That's why we need platform staff to make sure the doors aren't blocked."

The company has also taken note of the large number of commuters wandering its corridors and platforms with their faces glued to their mobile phones. It has produced an app, alerting passengers to delays, which has had more than two million downloads.