Transport minister Frank Chan fends off calls that he resign over MTR problems on Sha Tin-Central rail link
Instead, he pledges to give public a full account of what led to ‘totally unacceptable’ shoddy work and cover-ups in HK$97.1 billion project
Hong Kong’s transport minister fended off calls for his resignation on Wednesday, as two lawmakers insisted a top official take responsibility for the MTR Corporation’s supervision and reporting lapses in construction of the multibillion-dollar Sha Tin-Central rail link.
Instead, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan pledged to give the public a full account of what led to a burgeoning scandal of shoddy work and cover-ups and to ensure the safety of the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.4 billion) rail link, the city’s most expensive rail project to date.
“We need to find out who should be held responsible,” he said. “What really happened that led to the current disappointing situation? How do we ensure public safety is safeguarded and the impact on the work progress is reduced to a minimum level? At the moment the imminent task is to resolve these matters.”
“As to who should be held accountable for these matters, the public will have a fair view in future.”
Opposition lawmakers Claudia Mo Man-ching and Roy Kwong Chun-yu had asked the minister if he would resign, pointing to how top officials in other countries would face up to a similar situation.
“Secretary Frank Chan, would you consider stepping down to be held accountable?” Mo asked.
Chan sidestepped the question but stressed the government’s disappointment with the MTR Corp for keeping it in the dark. He called its failure to properly supervise contractors or report incidents of faulty construction to the government “totally unacceptable”.
He said he only learned of the problems from media articles.
The profitable rail giant, feted for having one of the best-designed systems in the world, has been grappling with a series of exposés on safety lapses at three stations along the rail link: Hung Hom, To Kwa Wan and Exhibition Centre.
The latest revelations concern works at the Exhibition Centre station. In its official explanation to the government on Tuesday, the MTR Corp admitted that workers there had dug deeper than allowed before the proper installation of underground support in the form of I-beams.
The rail firm said it had sent the contractor – a joint venture between Leighton Contractors (Asia) and China State Construction – two warnings of non-compliance last month and earlier this month, but it did not stop work.
Chan said the contractor should have halted construction immediately after the first warning and sought approval for remedial works. However, it continued with its flawed method of excavation.
“We are very disappointed with the handling of the Exhibition Centre station incident,” Chan said.
“We take note of the malfunction of [MTR Corp’s] supervision and that it has lasted for a long period of time.”
News of an earlier non-compliance warning issued to the contractor two years ago for building defective walls at Exhibition Centre station also surfaced and the MTR Corp’s projects director, Philco Wong Nai-keung, confirmed the incident on a radio programme on Wednesday.
But he stressed the contractor was made to rectify the problem the same year.
Chan emphasised that the Highways Department, which oversees rail projects, had conducted site visits and regular meetings with MTR staff for updates on the rail link.
But he chided the rail operator for not notifying the government of incidents of substandard work. At Hung Hom station, workers were found cutting steel bars short to fake proper installation at the platform.
Despite MTR frontline staff discovering the irregularities on five occasions from August to December 2015, they failed to keep proper records and did not report the matter to the management.
Main contractor Leighton Contractors (Asia) was also accused of instructing workers to carry out the fake installation. The government has reported the matter to police, and an independent commission of inquiry will conduct a probe into the matter.
At To Kwa Wan, steel bars had been removed by the contractor in an “unauthorised” manner from a wall that spanned two levels. The rail operator said an inspector who knew about the unauthorised work would be disciplined for not reporting the matter.
Chan also criticised the MTR Corp’s formal report to the government on the Hung Hom station scandal as failing to properly explain why the matter was not brought up.
“We are going to dig out the whole truth of these scandals and to find out the responsible parties in order to plug this loophole,” he said. “We will give the public a full account.”
The minister later told reporters he would not rule out reporting the lapses at To Kwa Wan and Exhibition Centre stations to police if criminal activity was suspected.