Hong Kong MTR

MTR chief Frederick Ma hits back at ‘illogical and unfair’ criticism over derailing incident and defends fare increase

MTR Corporation chairman put positive spin on incident, saying it was good to find problems so soon after testing had begun

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 11:34pm

The head of Hong Kong’s rail operator has called accusations the company attempted to cover-up a derailing incident “unwise, illogical and unfair”.

“The incident occurred after 9pm and we issued a press release around 3am the next morning. Isn’t that fast enough?” MTR Corporation chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang said, referring to a train that “shifted out of position” in the depot on Tuesday night.

The MTR immediately suspended tests on the long-awaited high-speed rail link to Guangzhou until checks were complete, although lawmaker Michael Tien was sceptical of the decision.

Speaking on the radio on Saturday, Ma played down the severity of the incident and even tried to apply a positive spin.

“It was, in fact, a good thing to find out a problem just three days after the trial began, because we can work on it immediately,” he said. “But this should not affect the commissioning date, set for end of September.”

The MTR had arranged an on-site inspection from the manufacturer – state-owned Qingdao Sifang – the next day, Ma revealed, while all the relevant government departments had also turned up.

He pledged that the MTR, which is tasked by the government to build the HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) project and is expected to operate it, would not compromise on safety.

Ma said under normal circumstances, tests would begin three months ahead of the official operation for any train service.

“But since the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link is the first of its kind in Hong Kong, we have doubled the length of the trial phase to six months,” he said.

Ma also responded to criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum over the MTR’s announcement on March 27 that it would increase fares by 3.14 per cent, to take effect on June 1, saying that fares had risen lower than inflation for years. Hong Kong’s inflation rate stood at 3.1 per cent in February.

MTR fares are revised annually using a fare adjustment mechanism agreed upon with the government. The formula takes into account year-on-year changes in the composite consumer price index and the nominal wage index of the transport sector.

He said that out of the MTR’s HK$16.8 billion net profit last year, HK$6.3 billion came from property revaluation and its railway operations were barely profitable.

“If you look solely at our railway operations, the return on equity was only about 1 per cent.”

More than HK$8 billion was spent on maintenance alone last year, he added, and therefore the MTR had to rely on its property arm to offset such expenditure.

The MTR is Hong Kong’s dominant public transport provider, with an average of 5.19 million trips made daily in 2016, compared with 3.96 million for franchised buses and 933,000 for taxis, according to figures from the Transport Department.