Embattled Hong Kong rail operator hit with fresh safety scare over Yuen Long station pillars that have been sinking since 2012
MTR Corp reveals subsidence forced developer Sun Hung Kai Properties to suspend building work on third phase of luxury Grand Yoho development, but says public was never in danger
Already reeling from a series of scandals the embattled MTR Corporation was hit by another safety scare on Friday when it emerged that pillars holding up a section of track at Yuen Long station are sinking.
The news came less than 24 hours after the rail operator’s board had demanded a review of how managers were running the city’s costliest rail project, the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.4 billion) Sha Tin to Central link.
This time, however, one of MTR Corp’s harshest critics, lawmaker and former rail boss Michael Tien Puk-sun, agreed with the corporation’s assessment there had been no wrongdoing and no risk to public safety.
Weeks of revelations by the media concerning shoddy work and cover-ups during ongoing construction at three stations along the Sha Tin to Central link have rattled the company.
On Friday, the rail operator said it had discovered in 2012 that a viaduct at the Yuen Long station, near the construction site of the third phase of the luxury Grand Yoho development, had started to show signs of subsidence.
Construction work on the luxury residential project by Sun Hung Kai Properties had already started when the MTR Corp was alerted to the issue by the Buildings Department.
Because of concerns about potential repercussions caused by the construction on the viaducts, including subsidence and tilting, the rail operator demanded the developer install inspection points at the site for it to monitor any impact building work was having.
“At the end of 2013 the subsidence of two rail viaducts reached 20mm, a level which requires immediate suspension of construction work at the site [under the law],” MTR Corp said.
While construction work was suspended, it was only in October last year that reinforcement work on the pillars began. This was because the rail firm had to negotiate an arrangement with Sun Hung Kai, and the Buildings Department. The reinforcement work is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The Buildings Department confirmed the subsidence level was still within an acceptable range and there was no obvious change so far.
“The subsidence has not caused any structural safety problems to the two pillars,” it said in a statement.
The MTR Corp had submitted a reinforcement proposal which was approved by the department in June 2015.
Tien, a former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Corporation (KCRC), said he did not find any irregularities concerning the rail operator’s handling of the subsidence problems, adding the firm had done its job according to the law.
“MTR Corp did what was required,” he said.
The lawmaker said only when the subsidence level reached 45mm would the viaducts need to be closed.
“If the government thought there was no need to disclose it to the public, it was not the MTR Corp’s business any more,” he said. “It is not fair to blame everything on MTR.”
The rail operator said the viaducts had remained safe and its staff had closely monitored the situation.
A Sun Hung Kai spokeswoman confirmed its Grand Yoho project had been put on hold until the reinforcement work at the viaducts was completed.
“In order to resume construction work for this project, Sun Hung Kai is willing to pay for the cost of reinforcement work of the viaducts,” she said.
However, civil and structural engineer Simon So Yiu-kwan believed the rail operator should have introduced the reinforcement work at the viaducts as soon as it discovered the problems in 2013, as the subsidence level was serious enough to pose a safety risk.
“What we see is MTR Corp failed to introduce the remedial measure immediately, but allowed the problems to drag on for four years without disclosing the issue to the public,” he said. “This was not a proper approach.”