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Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong probe into shoddy railway work to feature British engineer from 2014 inquiry

Peter Hansford to team up with judge Michael Hartmann for second time, on independent commission looking into steel bars scandal on Sha Tin-Central link

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2018, 7:59am

An expert panel probing a scandal in which corners were cut on construction for Hong Kong’s most expensive railway project will feature the same British engineer appointed to a similar inquiry back in 2014.

The Executive Council, the top body of advisers to Hong Kong’s leader, is expected to discuss and approve Peter Hansford on Tuesday to sit on the independent commission investigating shoddy work on the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.37 billion) Sha Tin-Central link, the Post has learned.

The anticipated appointment of the former British government chief construction adviser comes after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last month chose non-permanent Court of Final Appeal judge Michael Hartmann to lead the inquiry, amid mounting public pressure to get to the bottom of the scandal.

Hansford will link up with Hartmann for a second time after the pair led a panel probing delays in construction for a high-speed railway to the mainland Chinese city of Guangzhou in 2014.

The current panel has been given powers not enjoyed by the 2014 probe, including the right to summon witnesses and request documents where necessary.

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Controversy arose in May when Hong Kong’s railway operator confirmed that in 2015 steel bars used at Hung Hom station had been trimmed to look like they had been screwed properly into couplers on platforms, when in fact they had not.

The furore deepened after an initial figure of 25 problematic bars reported by the MTR Corporation was disputed by subcontractor China Technology Corporation and lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, who claimed the number was in the thousands.

Police opened an investigation at the request of the government’s Highways Department, and the MTR Corp handed over documents to law enforcement agencies. Lam then ordered the independent inquiry.

The main contractor on the project, Leighton Contractors (Asia), has been accused of instructing workers to carry out the fake installation work.

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Lam conceded earlier this month during a session at the city’s legislature that it was difficult finding an expert in the local construction sector with no affiliation or record of consultancy work with the MTR Corp, which could present potential conflicts of interest. It was understood Hansford has already cleared procedures to eliminate any doubts about his suitability.

The former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers has overseen and consulted on numerous British infrastructure projects in the past 30 years, including sitting on two district railway boards.

A post with Maunsell Consultants Asia brought him to Hong Kong early in his career to provide consultancy services to public bodies including the MTR Corp and Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation before the merger of the two firms. But since 1986 he has worked in Britain.

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Exco is on Tuesday expected to formally lay out the scope of the investigation, which will primarily focus on the cause of the problems at Hung Hom station, the MTR’s system of subcontracting and the government’s monitoring mechanisms for construction.

Further substandard work was later discovered at To Kwa Wan and Exhibition Centre stations on the rail link, prompting lawmakers across the political spectrum to call for the scope of the probe to be widened.

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However, it was understood the inquiry would not include a dedicated investigation into work at these other stations. One source close to Exco said those issues would be covered by the examinations of the MTR subcontracting system and the government’s monitoring role.

The inquiry is expected to take about six months.

Hansford did not return email inquiries from the Post on Monday asking him to confirm his appointment.