Suspension of Hong Kong cross-border train tests brings bigger problems, former railway boss Michael Tien says
He says it’s crucial to continue trials to uncover other potential bugs following derailment incident, since plan is to start passenger services from September
The MTR Corporation’s decision to suspend testing trains for Hong Kong’s new express rail link to mainland China was a “knee-jerk reaction” to a derailment incident and would only lead to bigger problems in the future, former railway boss and lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said on Friday.
His comments came as Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan also weighed in on the mishap for the first time, assuring the public the government took the matter seriously and that passenger safety was paramount.
Tien, who was chairman of rail operator KCR before it merged with MTR Corp in 2007, said the operator should go “full speed ahead” and continue running tests to uncover other bugs, especially since it intended to begin passenger services in September on the HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) rail link.
“I don’t know why they stopped the testing. I thought they would go full speed ahead ... assuming there may be other [problems],” he said. “If we stop tests now, what do we do? Further tests after this [may be too late] and will involve passengers.”
On Wednesday, the MTR Corp said it had put the brakes on tests two days after starting the process, as it investigated how four wheels on a French-designed, made-in-China train had “shifted out of position” during a trial run. Train depot staff discovered this during an inspection at 9.15pm on Tuesday night.
The government demanded that the MTR Corp produce an investigation report “as soon as possible” to determine the cause of the incident and take measures to prevent it from recurring.
The operator’s initial examination found the derailment was isolated to the maintenance depot and there were no widespread defects across the rail line.
On Friday Chan said he would not speculate on the cause of the incident but added he could not see why the derailment incident would affect the proposed start of train services in September. However, he did not elaborate on his beliefs.
Lam said the 26km cross-border rail link was among three major infrastructure projects for the city as it would boost the development of the “Greater Bay Area” – a project to forge an economic powerhouse across nine cities, including Hong Kong and Macau, in the Pearl River Delta.
The cross-border rail link would connect Hong Kong with the mainland’s vast high-speed rail network for the first time. A one-way ticket for the 48-minute journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou will cost HK$260.
Meanwhile, lawmakers made little progress in scrutinising a controversial joint checkpoint plan for the West Kowloon terminus of the rail link. The so-called co-location proposal has been the subject of a highly charged debate as it would allow mainland officials to enforce national laws in parts of the terminus, something which opponents argue would violate the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
At the two-hour bills committee meeting on Friday – the ninth session on the matter – chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said she would not entertain further questions on the bill’s constitutionality, unless there was a clear reference to legal texts.
Pro-democracy lawmakers protested against Ip’s decision and chanted from their seats, taking issue with a “vague” choice of words in the bill’s foreword. It currently says that a “certain area” in the terminus would be considered a mainland port section and not Hong Kong territory for “a certain purpose”.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting questioned why the foreword did not specify the exact location in the terminus where the joint checkpoint would be located. NeoDemocrat legislator Gary Fan Kwok-wai asked: “Isn’t it better to be more accurate and clearer when drafting laws?”
But Chan, who was also at the Legislative Council, stood his ground and said there would be no changes to the foreword.
Legco will host a 10-hour public hearing on Saturday, in which 188 individuals or groups will present their views. Ahead of that, the Progressive Lawyers Group issued a statement saying that by allowing mainland laws to be applied in the city, the government was taking the issue over the constitution away from local courts and acceding to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body.
The group argued it would set a “worst precedent” since the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and that implementing the co-location plan would be a move to “rule by decree” that would harm the city’s rule of law.