LAST THURSDAY MORNING the East Rail Line of the MTR broke down again, primarily because the server of its signalling system, its so-called "heart", was not functioning smoothly. Things did not improve even after the MTR switched to the reserve system, and efforts to reboot the system manually also failed. The MTR decided to suspend service on the East Rail Line fully.
Last August, due to a problem with the signalling system that lasted for more than ten hours, train service on the Kwun Tong line of the MTR was severely affected. Back then the MTR management claimed that the incident was caused by a "peculiar" situation. However, less than half a year after the incident, an MTR signalling system broke down again, this time on the East Rail Line. In recent years, problems with the MTR's signalling system have been a common occurrence, with the situation of the several older rail lines particularly worrying. After the serious disruption on the Kwun Tong line last year, the MTR said that ordinarily a signalling system can be used for around 30 years. The signalling system on the Kwun Tong line came into operation in 1989. In other words, it has been in service for more than 28 years. The East Rail Line's signalling system is also very old — it has been in operation for around 30 years. There has not been any major update of the system since 1998, when the Kowloon-Canton Railway introduced a computerised automatic signalling system to the KCR East Rail (renamed the East Rail Line after the merger of the two railway companies in 2007).
Currently, if any malfunction happens in the central signalling systems of all urban railway lines (except the East Rail Line), it is possible to maintain basic operation through the station control mode, and service between train stations can largely be maintained. But the design of the East Rail Line is such that it has not kept up with the times. If the central signalling system breaks down, the reserve system is used automatically. In other words, the East Rail Line has one fewer line of protection, which might have contributed to the complete breakdown last Thursday.
In recent years, the MTR has spent $3.3 billion to replace the signalling systems of eight urban railway lines. The replacement work on the East Rail Line began in late 2015. The MTR said that after the East Rail Line's signalling system was replaced, the extra reserve system to be deployed when any accident happened would be strengthened. That would enable more comprehensive protection and prevent service disruption. But as of last November, only 60 per cent of the replacement work had been completed. Not until the year 2021, when the Shatin to Central link opens, will the East Rail Line's system be fully upgraded and the linkage be completed.
More than 4.9 million people use the MTR's local railway services every day. The company claims that it provides "world-class railway service". It says on its web page that it is universally regarded as a first-rate railway system in the world. Hong Kong people trust the MTR. They hope that by paying fares to the MTR the company can enable them to go to work or school punctually. The company should win the trust of citizens with practical work.