Hong Kong’s MTR system remains the best in the world, so why lose faith in it?

Yonden Lhatoo reminds us that despite all the negative publicity surrounding the city’s most popular form of public transport, it is still doing a remarkable job and remains the envy of the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2018, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2018, 11:20pm

One look at all the news about Hong Kong’s metro system these days and you’d think we’re talking about a train wreck of a service.

Anyone overseas who has never been to this city could be forgiven for assuming we have a third world-standard mass transit railway, given the constant negative media coverage about service disruptions, fare increases and construction flaws.

In the latest “scandal”, MTR bosses have admitted a contractor was found to have cut corners on five occasions while building a key section of the city’s most expensive railway project, but they did not consider it a criminal offence to be reported to police.

The MTR Corporation is now being accused of a cover-up as it turns out the shoddy work relating to the construction of platforms at the Hung Hom station of the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central link was discovered earlier than it originally claimed.

Lawmakers across the spectrum have set aside their usually rancorous political and ideological differences to indulge in some good old, bipartisan MTR bashing. Some are even saying they have lost faith in the railway operator and the people of Hong Kong can no longer trust it.

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Really? Let’s all take a chill pill and appreciate the fact that, at the end of the day, the most popular form of public transport in this city is a world-class operation that is easily one of the best – if not the best – on the planet.

Official statistics show the MTR carried more than 1.7 billion passengers – that’s more than 2.1 million train trips – in 2017, with a punctuality rate of 99.9 per cent. This is something we take for granted, but we would do well to stop and think about the effort and efficiency required to handle that kind of load and remain such a class act.

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Experts will tell you Hong Kong’s MTR is one of the best designed, managed, and operated transport systems in the world, as well as one of the most successful and profitable.

It’s also the most-envied metro, which is why it’s a global leader in the mass transit business and is designing, building or running railway systems from Beijing and Shenzhen in China to Britain, Sweden and Australia.

When I was a university student travelling in India, it was common to arrive at a railway station and be told the train would be 24 hours or more late. Not much has improved since, I’m told.

So you can imagine why I still find it amusing, after all these years, to see commuters go ballistic when trains are delayed by a few minutes in this city. A one-hour service disruption makes headline news, even if trains are still running during such interludes, although at reduced frequency, and commuters have to wait a few minutes longer.

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But, in Hongkongers’ defence, we do have far higher standards than most cities and vigorously hold our public transport operators to them. Members of the public, politicians and the media are highly critical of the MTR’s performance, and that’s not a negative – it keeps railway boss Frederick Ma Si-hang and his crew on their toes.

I’m not glossing over the problems plaguing the MTR as it tries to accommodate an ever-growing population and constantly expands its network, undertaking gigantic, multibillion-dollar projects. I’m just putting it into context.

Don’t forget that while the MTR was privatised nearly two decades ago, the government remains a hands-on majority shareholder and exercises plenty of oversight. You’re in good hands.

So, the next time you’re stuck in a hajj-style rush-hour crowd on the Admiralty station platform, entertaining dark thoughts as every train that pulls in is packed to the gills, forcing you to wait for the next one, remember that it’s all relative.

These are what you call first-world problems.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post