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Typhoon Mangkhut

Typhoon Mangkhut travel chaos: how one woman’s Hong Kong commute took more than two hours and a trip in the wrong direction

Lily Ng’s daily commute to Wan Chai became an odyssey of more than two hours, including a crowded platform and taking train in the wrong direction

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 9:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 10:28am

After bunkering down to avoid the most intense storm to hit Hong Kong since records began, the city’s 3.8 million working residents emerged from their shelters on Monday to return to work.

But for many the trek was an arduous one, with the major pressure point coming at Tai Wai station – where the East Rail and Ma On Shan lines meet.

Lily Ng’s daily commute to Wan Chai, which normally takes about an hour, became a dreadful and circuitous journey that took her more than two hours.

“The impossible knot was in Tai Wai station,” Ng said.

“There were so many people in the departure hall and on the platforms that I felt dizzy.”

Linking 13 stations from the Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau checkpoints on the mainland Chinese border with Hung Hom on the southern tip of Kowloon, the East Rail Link is one of the busiest lines in Hong Kong, carrying an average of 172,000 passengers during the morning peak hours, according to the railway operator MTR Corporation.

At Tai Wai, four stations from Hung Hom, the line connects with the Ma On Shan line – a branch line with another nine stops.

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Typhoon Mangkhut, which caused the highest warning signal on Hong Kong’s storm scale to be raised for more than 10 hours on Sunday, left the city battered and more than 1,000 road sections blocked.

Most public transport was unable to run, including most bus routes and a lot of the overground train network. Facilities at more than 50 locations along Hong Kong’s longest nine railway lines were affected by fallen trees and clutter, the MTR said.

“Some of the mechanic components and high-voltage power lines suffered unprecedented damage under Typhoon Mangkhut,” said Tony Lee Ka-yun, chief of engineering operations at the MTR on Monday evening.

“Our technicians are still conducing urgent repairs at Sheung Shui and University stations [on the East Rail line].”

Lee added the repair work was not suspended even under typhoon warning signal No 8.

“The work was so tough under the winds and rain … and the technicians were so busy that they didn’t even have enough time for meal,” Lee said. “It was no picnic that the line resumed even a limited service by this morning.”

Ng, an assistant general manager of a shipping company, anticipated a longer commute and left home for her nearest station – City One on the Ma On Shan line – earlier than usual at 7.10am.

At Tai Wai, along with hundreds of others, she was instructed to go to the platform opposite to the one for the Hung Hom-bound train.

“There was no explanation. It was only said that trains to Hung Hom and to Sha Tin would come in intervals of 10 minutes,” Ng said.

Alan Cheng Kwan-hing, MTR’s chief of operating, later said it was because the rail for trains to Hung Hom could not operate because of cut-off power lines.

“We had to run trains in both directions on a single rail at an interval of 10 to 12 minutes,” Cheng said.

With no MTR staff maintaining order or providing assistance, Ng stood on the platform for an hour as packed trains came and went.

Just as it seemed she may finally be about to get on one, the station broadcast again announcing “resumption of normal service”, prompting a large volume of passengers to turn and head across the opposite platform, with much swearing and impatience.

It was no picnic that the line resumed even a limited service by this morning
Dr Tony Lee Ka-yun, MTR chief of engineering operations

“A man standing next to me suggested not to change platform because I would have to stand in another long queue,” Ng said. Taking the man’s advice, Ng went one stop in the wrong direction, hoping that the same train would then turn around and head back to Hung Hom. Her gamble paid off, with the rest of the line still suspended.

Ng reached her office around 9.30am, 140 minutes after she had left home.

As Mangkhut blew away on Sunday night and the warning was downgraded from signal No 8 then to No 3 before dawn, the government decided not to call a special day off, despite the damage.

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said: “Considering the current situation of Hong Kong, it’s more suitable to let the employers and employees make arrangements under mutual understanding and accommodation, since many employees have to provide services to fellow citizens.”

As the leader of the largest employer in the city, Lam called on other employers to follow the government’s lead and allow staff to be absent or late for work.

For Ng, a message from HR saying she could be late or work from home did not arrive in time.

“I was already in the crowd at Tai Wai,” she said. “And if I just returned home, what would my colleagues think of me?”

When asked if the road conditions were not suitable for a normal work day, Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan said: “Road traffic was generally acceptable. Crowding was mainly found on the East Rail line.”

Only 20 per cent of about 600 franchised bus lines in Hong Kong had managed to resume service by 5pm on Monday, and it would take the government another two days to clear all the blocked roads, according to Chan.

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Ng said the government should roll out an arrangement of “flexible attendance hours” after discussing with the MTR Corp about the potential time of full service resumption.

“They knew in advance that bus services wouldn’t be back in place immediately, meaning that most of the employees would flock to the trains,” Ng said.

“If the MTR estimated that their services could not be fully resumed until, say, around noon, they should discuss with the government and the government should ask employers to implement flexible attendance hours before noon and only resume business in full in the afternoon.”

The limited MTR services in the morning, therefore, could be freed up to serve those who had to go to work, according to Ng.

“After such a long and strong typhoon, a lot needs cleaning up,” Ng said. “Even the MTR Corp should be allowed some time to conduct safety check on their stations and trains.

“But today, the first thing in the morning for them was to run a service for a large number of passengers.”

Cheng of the MTR Corp said the company would run a complete and more in-depth check of the East Rail line after service closed on Monday night.

But before that, the railway service would have to be tested again during the evening rush hour.

“But by 4.45pm, we had managed to shortened the interval to five minutes [between Sha Tin and Hung Hom], returning to our normal frequency,” Cheng said.

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Yet the section between Tai Po Market and Sheung Shui was still under limited service at an interval of 10 minutes. Shuttle buses going between Sheung Shui and Fanling had resumed but it would take more time than usual due to congestion.

As home time came, Ng decided not to test her luck again when she saw an 88R bus – an express line linking Central to Sha Tin – was in service as she headed out of office at 5.50pm.

“I don’t have a seat but I am very happy,” said Ng while on board of the double-decker and almost home.