Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation accused of deceiving public over construction blunders for HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central link
Lawmakers blast rail operator as company admits it failed to inform police after finding on five occasions a subcontractor had cut corners
Hong Kong’s rail operator on Friday admitted it had found five occasions where a subcontractor had cut corners on construction for a key section of the city’s most expensive railway project, but failed to report its findings to police as it was “not required”.
The MTR Corporation was accused of deceiving the public by revising the time of discovery for the first irregularity to August 2015 from the December 2015 date originally stated on Wednesday.
Hong Kong Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan subsequently vowed to report the matter to police if any illegal activities were uncovered relating to the construction of platforms at Hung Hom station in Kowloon for the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.38 billion) Sha Tin-Central link.
“We are still waiting for the MTR to submit a report to us within one week. Please give us some time to find out what happened first. If we discover from the report that illegal activities were committed, we won’t let it go. We must take follow-up action and report the matter to police,” Chan said.
The minister made the pledge as government officials and senior MTR executives received a grilling and a barrage of criticism from lawmakers on a railway subcommittee at Hong Kong’s legislature, which met on Friday to discuss the safety scandal.
On Wednesday, MTR Corp responded to media reports by conceding that a subcontractor had produced substandard work for the platforms, with staff cutting steel bars to make it seem as if the metal structures had been screwed correctly into couplers. The rail operator did not name anyone involved, and claimed the fault had been rectified.
The errors took place inside one of two underground levels being built beneath Hung Hom station to house four platforms for the new rail line. Once finished the link will connect to existing rail lines to form a larger Tuen Mun to Ma On Shan rail corridor to be known as the Tuen Ma Line.
The MTR first claimed it discovered the faults in December 2015, but its projects director Dr Philco Wong Wai-ming on Friday morning revised that date to August 2015.
“In fact, in August 2015 our inspection team discovered some steel bars had been cut … It was in December 2015 that we wrote to the contractor demanding it rectify the fault,” he said.
Leighton Contractors (Asia) was the main firm building the platforms. Under a HK$5.2 billion contract signed in March 2013, the company is responsible for construction of the Hung Hom station floors and stabling sidings for the Sha Tin-Central link.
Hong Kong’s Sha Tin-Central rail link hit by corner-cutting contractor’s shoddy work on platforms, MTR Corporation confirms
The firm subcontracted concreting work, which could not begin until the steel bars were certified satisfactory, to China Technology Corporation. But the MTR said it was another subcontractor hired by Leighton which carried out the substandard work on the bars.
The rail link has been hit by delays and is HK$16.5 billion over budget, now carrying a price tag of HK$97.1 billion.
Aidan Rooney, the MTR’s general manager for the section of the link crossing Victoria Harbour, disclosed on Friday that on five occasions before December 2015 his staff had identified steel bars which had been cut.
“Because they couldn’t fit into the couplers, we could clearly identify there was a defect,” he said.
But he stressed that after they elevated the issue to senior bosses at the contractor and MTR Corp, there was no repeat incident during remaining construction for that section of track.
“We checked the track slab 100 per cent and found its construction met all specifications,” Rooney said.
Lawmakers however were furious with MTR Corp, accusing the rail giant of telling lies and a dereliction of duty for failing to report the matter to police.
“It is obvious someone was suspected of committing fraud that served to cover up their blunders. Why didn’t the MTR take any follow-up action against the concerned parties?” asked Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho.
But Wong said MTR Corp’s job was only to monitor the project and ensure rectifications met the required standards if faults were found.
Tam was not satisfied with that explanation.
“Are you saying this is not a problem at all? Other contractors may be doing the same thing. This is a dereliction of duty on your part when you failed to follow up on a fraudulent act,” Tam said.
In another significant admission, Wong disclosed that although the steel bar problems had been found before concreting work began at Hung Hom station, it had not been the case in a separate blunder also involving Leighton at a nearby tunnel.
Faulty steel bars were unearthed in March by MTR engineering staff while inspecting newly completed concrete connection joints for the tunnel. A portion of concrete on the surface of the tunnel then had to be removed.
“We shouldn’t have allowed the contractor to pour the concrete in the steel structures when we hadn’t issued a certificate,” Wong said. “There was indeed something we didn’t do adequately.”
In a statement issued by China Technology Corp on Friday, it said its staff first noticed the faulty steel bars in July 2015 and in August the company notified two Leighton staff to the problem at superintendent level and demanded them to stop the work. It said the situation improved but then they found the same problem crop up again.
Eventually in January 2017, the firm made a written complaint to the management of Leighton.