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Hong Kong MTR

MTR Corp admits workers cut corners on Hong Kong’s HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link – but doesn’t know who was responsible

Rail operator reveals details of faulty work in building platform underneath Hung Hom station

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 9:39am

Hong Kong’s railway giant sought to come clean over a construction scandal that has rocked its most expensive project, admitting on Wednesday glaring lapses in documenting faulty work on the Sha Tin-Central link.

The MTR Corporation also vowed to take legal action if any evidence of fraud was uncovered on the HK$97.1 billion (US$12 billion) project as it fended off accusations of a cover-up after a series of revelations about irregularities.

On a day when the company aired plenty of its dirty laundry in public, it also said it was investigating whether some of its engineers cheated on an exam testing their suitability to inspect repairs and carry out maintenance work.

The real scandal though has centred on workers who cut corners when building a platform underneath Hung Hom station as part of the massive construction project.

Philco Wong Nai-keung, projects director for the MTR Corp, said that on five occasions between August and December 2015 the rail operator found steel bars had been cut to make it seem as if they had been screwed correctly into couplers on the platform.

Wong said that at most 25 bars had been cut during that period.

However, on four out of the five occasions that there was a problem with the work, the issue was not documented and as a result the corporation did not know who cut the steel bars, Wong said.

“We don’t have any evidence on-site as to who did it. The most important thing is the irregularities were rectified,” he said. “There are so many work procedures at the construction site, which are not necessarily all documented.”

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Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen, the operator’s chief executive, said the contractor of the Hung Hom station project was Leighton Contractors (Asia), which outsourced the steel job to subcontractor Fang Sheung Construction.

The errors took place inside one of two underground levels being built beneath Hung Hom station to house four platforms for a 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.

“We don’t know why the workers chose to cut the steel bars, which took lots more effort. There are other ways to get this done,” Wong said, demonstrating in 15 seconds how a steel bar could be screwed by hand into a coupler.

The MTR Corp chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang said the firm would take legal action against anyone found to have broken the law.

“We are treating the matter extremely seriously as public safety is our No 1 priority,” Ma said.

However, he said the report on the scandal, which the government demanded be handed in within a week, would be delayed to the end of next week as it “needs time to gather information over a matter that happened three years ago”.

The rail operator has also appointed an independent consultant, engineering firm C M Wong & Associates, to test loading on the platform in question.

Wong was tasked with performing strength tests on the Hong Kong section of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge last year, after it emerged that fake quality tests had been carried out on the concrete used.

Ma said the results of the tests should be ready in three to four months.

The Sha Tin-Central line has been troubled by cost overruns and delays. Services on the Tuen Ma line are due to begin in 2019, and on the cross-harbour section between Hung Hom and Admiralty in 2021.

“Trial runs of trains on the new platforms [of the Tuen Ma line] started in April, and have been smooth so far,” Leong said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the political divide were unimpressed by the corporation’s explanations. Roundtable legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun and the Civic Party’s Tanya Chan said the corporation had not fully explained what had happened.

Rejecting the MTR Corp’s view that the incident had involved poor quality workmanship, Tien said: “There is only one conclusion: somebody committed fakery.”

Chan said the corporation had become an “independent kingdom” under Ma’s leadership.

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The pair called for an independent committee to investigate the scandal, to be spearheaded by a judge appointed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

Separately, the MTR Corp said it would look into media reports that engineers sitting an internal test cheated so the corporation would have enough members of staff to inspect the repair and maintenance work. The engineers were reportedly given answers before taking the test and tips to amend answers before leaving a test venue.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department was following up on the fresh accusations.

“We will monitor the investigation. In any case, we cannot compromise public safety,” Chan said.

Chan said he would not rule out any form of action the government could take, and said the rail operator could have longer to finish its report so that it could be clearly established what had happened.

It had “yet to be confirmed” whether any laws were broken, Chan added.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said it was “unthinkable” that corporation staff were allowed to cheat on an important test.

“The incident has exposed a worrying corporate culture at MTR,” Lam said.