Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announces judge-led inquiry into MTR Corporation’s Sha Tin-Central rail link corner-cutting scandal

Revelations of shoddy work have in recent weeks marred the most expensive rail project in the city’s history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 11:50pm

Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday announced an independent investigation into the Sha Tin-Central rail link’s corner-cutting scandal, vowing to give a former judge “all necessary power” to uncover what went wrong on the MTR Corporation’s HK$97.1 billion (US$12 billion) project.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that, given the “severity” of the incident, forming a commission of inquiry – a high-powered inquisition, which can summon witnesses – was appropriate. Former non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal Michael Hartmann, 73, will lead the inquiry.

Revelations of shoddy work – and faulty documentation of it – have in recent weeks marred the most expensive rail project in the city’s history.

Last week, the semi-privatised MTR Corp said a subcontractor, Fang Sheung Construction, cut corners when building platforms for the new link under Hung Hom station.

Its workers were alleged to have cut metal bars to make it seem they had been screwed correctly into couplers, though they had not. Photos later emerged of workers wearing the uniform of the main contractor, Leighton Contractors (Asia), cutting the bars.

Lam – whose announcement preempted the MTR Corp’s submission of a report into the furore, scheduled for Friday – said the commission would investigate the cause and extent of the problems on the job. It would also review supervision at the MTR Corp and how the government – which has a 75 per cent stake in the corporation – monitors and controls such projects, she said.

She said she had the “full support” of Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li to appoint a commission of inquiry, something legislators had pressured the government to do in recent days. She said she would consult her Executive Council on the composition of the panel and its terms of reference, but did not set a date for its formal appointment.

“We hope that the commission can submit its report in about six months’ time after its commencement of work so that the truth can be unveiled as soon as possible,” Lam said.

She added it was “too early to say” whether the probe would delay the opening of the first part of the link, set for mid-2019.

Lam said that, as the commission would be formed under the Commission of Inquiry Ordinance, it would have “all necessary powers” to summon witnesses and request documents.

Under that ordinance, the commission can issue an arrest warrant for anyone who refuses to attend one of its hearings. Anyone who refuses to hand over documents it requests can face three months in jail and a fine of HK$1,000 (US$127).

The law protects witnesses from any criminal or civil proceedings that arise from honest cooperation with the commission.

After the investigation, the commission would make recommendations to safeguard the quality of works and public safety, Lam said.

The city leader said the government would make no “guesses” or premature announcements on whether MTR Corp chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang would lose his job.

“Chairman Ma has worked hard in leading the MTR Corp in the past three years,” she said.

Bad news and scandal are piling pressure on Hong Kong's MTR

This will not be Hartmann’s first delve into a big infrastructure job gone awry. He was involved in an expert panel that reviewed the delay of the HK$84.4 billion cross-border high-speed rail project.

In a report delivered in January 2015, the panel found that the Highways Department and the MTR Corp had respectively failed in their roles, resulting in delays and a budget overrun. The MTR Corp’s corporate culture of “discouraging elevation of bad news without solutions” was partly to blame, the panel said.

Lam was involved in two previous commissions of inquiry, when she was chief secretary. They investigated the 2012 Lamma ferry disaster and the 2015 lead-in-water scandal, which affected 11 public housing estates.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council’s railways panel, said the government had responded swiftly to the recent scandals by establishing the commission. He said it would be unreasonable to put all the blame on the MTR Corp, and that the investigation should also look into whether government officials had been negligent.

China Technology Corp, one of two subcontractors, along with Fang Sheung, working under Leighton on the Hung Hom platforms, said it welcomed the government’s announcement and would “actively cooperate” with the investigation.

Leighton Contractors (Asia) refused to comment on the matter.

The MTR Corp said its board welcomed the probe and had instructed its management to “fully cooperate” with it.

“If any violation is found as a result of the investigation by the commission, it would be treated very seriously and handled strictly in accordance with the law,” a spokesman said.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said, that given the legal protections on offer, he expected anyone summoned to cooperate and tell the commission what it wanted to know.

“If you don’t say it, the other party might,” he said.