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Hong Kong MTR

Service resumes on Hong Kong MTR East Rail Line after two-hour stoppage causes commuter chaos, stranding thousands

Signal fault earlier caused entire line to be suspended ‘for safety reasons’, leading to long bus lines and jams at Lion Rock Tunnel

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 10:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 10:01pm

Trains on MTR’s East Rail Line have resumed service using a backup system, after a failure on the main signal system on Thursday morning caused the entire line to be suspended for more than two hours, stranding thousands of passengers.

After detecting the glitch at about 9am, the firm tried to restart the system manually, but this failed to resolve the problem, Francis Li Shing-kee, MTR’s head of operations, said during a media briefing at 11.30am.

“At this moment we will still rely on the backup system to make sure travel is smooth,” Li said. “The main system may work, but we do not want to take the risk.”

He said there was no difference between the two systems, and the switch just involved a change of servers. “Reliability and safety would not be affected.”

Li apologised to the public for the inconvenience and stressed that the company would conduct a comprehensive investigation in the night after service hours.

The suspension saw 14 trains stuck in between stations.

Passengers on two trains in Fanling and Fo Tan forced the doors open and got to a station by walking along the tracks, Li said. Because of this, staff had to inspect the entire line to make sure no one was left behind before service could be resumed.

“The air-conditioning, lighting and broadcast systems on the two trains were still working, and it was not necessary for passengers to open the doors and walk along the railroad tracks,” Li said.

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The rail operator first reported the glitch at 9.24am, saying a journey from the end station of Lo Wu to Hung Hom would take 10 to 15 minutes longer than usual.

But just seven minutes later, at 9.31am, MTR staff announced the whole line had been suspended “for safety reasons”.

At 11.30am, a statement on the MTR website said that train service on the East Rail Line was gradually resuming.

During the stoppage, shuttle buses were provided between Kowloon Tong and Lo Wu, but a backlog of passengers was still seen at many stations, including Tai Wai and Kowloon Tong.

Hundreds of passengers at Tai Po Market station were left confused by the service disruption.

Station staff in pink vests were busy telling passengers about alternative transport options.

Two shuttle buses, one heading to Lo Wu and one southbound for Kowloon Tong, were arranged for commuters at Tai Po Market station.

Patrick Ho, a 65-year-old businessman who originally planned to attend a meeting in Shenzhen at 10.30am, said he was disappointed with MTR’s handling of the incident.

“The instructions were not clear enough. I waited for about 15 minutes until I was told I could take a shuttle bus,” Ho said.

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He had boarded a train at 8.30am at Mong Kok East station, but it stopped between University and Tai Po Market stations at about 9.15am. It took until 10.30am for the train to reach Tai Po Market station, where passengers were asked to get off to take the bus.

“MTR should have arranged those shuttle buses earlier so passengers didn’t have to wait that long,” Ho said.

Exceptionally long queues were seen at a bus station outside Kwong Fuk Estate, near Tai Po Market station.

Saleswoman Kinki Chung, 30, decided to take a bus to Tsim Sha Tsui for work instead of the train. But with the long queue, she was not sure when it would be her turn to board.

“I’m just speechless with the MTR arrangements. At the beginning they just displayed a notice and asked us to take other buses,” Chung said.

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At Kowloon Tong station, passengers were turned away from the East Rail Line platforms during the service suspension by MTR staff and police, who guided commuters to the waiting shuttle buses.

As the disruption occurred just as the morning rush had ended, there was less passenger traffic at the station.

However, the queue for the buses had passengers waiting about 20 to 30 minutes to board. Dozens of passengers waited for train services to resume rather than for a shuttle bus.

Long lines formed at taxi ranks at many stations, while Lion Rock Tunnel, which connects eastern New Territories and Kowloon, was experiencing heavier traffic than usual.

“There are so many [long-distance fares] that drivers even ignore customers going to the airport,” cabbie Chow Wing-fuk said.

“Waterloo Road is now paralysed. If you want to go to the New Territories, you will have to bypass the [Lion Rock] tunnel and go another way,” he added.

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As of noon, Intercity Through Train was still handing backlog passengers as a large number of commuters waited for East Rail Line services to resume at Hung Hom station.

“We still do not know when the next train will depart,” a staff member said. “We are not selling any tickets for today at the moment.”

A passenger surnamed Wong said he was very confused about the situation.

“Some staff told me there would be no train for today, while some said service may resume later. I can only wait here.”

Another passenger surnamed Lee said she had been sitting in a stopped train to Guangzhou East since 9am, only to be asked to leave at 11am.

“Should I get a refund or wait for another train? Nobody told me what to do.”

Disgruntled commuters took to social media to voice their anger.

A male passenger on a train that stopped inside a tunnel said: “Those who are in open areas can at least leave the train and walk on the track, but I’ve been stuck in darkness for half an hour now and there is nothing I can do.”

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Others found creative transport alternatives.

“I rode a shared bicycle to Che Kung Temple and got on a bus [to Jordan],” one commuter posted on social media.

According to the corporation’s interim report last year, the East Rail Line delivered 99.9 per cent of its pledged services between January and June last year, higher than the 98.5 per cent required by the government.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung and Harminder Singh.