It is the fortieth year since Hong Kong's railway system came into operation. The MTR has always claimed to be safe and reliable and be ranked among the world's best railway systems. But obviously, Hong Kong citizens' confidence in the MTR has consistently declined in recent years. Though the latest collision took place in the early morning when the new signalling system was being tested and did not cause heavy casualties, it has already made the MTR's halo of "zero collision" slip. The MTR says that the incident had nothing to do with the existing signalling system, and the trains were not travelling at a high speed during the collision. It also says that the captains of the trains employed emergency braking to slow down the trains. However, judging from the photographs taken at the scene, the compartments were a ghastly sight. Citizens will inevitably imagine how heavy the casualties would be if a similar accident happened to a fully loaded train.
Currently the MTR's train service frequency at peak hours has reached the ceiling of the signalling system. To further increase the frequency of train services, it is necessary to change the design of the signalling system. In 2015, in view of system ageing and the need to increase train capacity, the MTR decided to spend HK$3.3 billion to replace the signalling system of seven urban rail lines in phases. The replacement has, unexpectedly, run into quite a few setbacks. The Tsuen Wan line was scheduled to try the new system late last year, the first to do so among all rail lines. But the trial run has been delayed to the second half of this year, before the new system can be run alongside the old system during the "Mixed Mode Operation". It was once suspected that the "four-line breakdown" experienced by the MTR last October had to do with the testing of the new signalling system. The MTR later clarified that the accident stemmed from a problem with data synchronisation and was not caused by the new system. However, whether the new system is safe and reliable has still aroused quite a lot of concern.
The failure of the anti-collision system to function is an extremely serious problem. The latest collision has dealt a heavy blow to public confidence in the new signalling system. The MTR must demand that the contractors shoulder their responsibilities, conduct a full review of the entire system and ensure that the system is safe before it comes into operation. As the major shareholder in the MTR, the government also has a responsibility to press the company to carry out reform and enhance the management of train services.
Over the past ten years or so, the MTR's businesses have become increasingly complicated. The latest results show that profits contributed by shops at train stations have exceeded $5 billion, which is 1.5 times that of passenger train services. In recent years, the MTR has been hit by one serious accident after another, while its infrastructural projects have run into one problem after another. There is concern about whether the MTR is focusing on what is important and is too occupied with lucrative operations to do a good job of providing train services, which should be its primary task. The collision has once again called into question the MTR's performance and capability. To focus on providing the best transportation services, the MTR must cut back on distractions. The government should order the MTR to reform its managerial structure and hive off some businesses to ensure that MTR will return to its primary task, which is to serve citizens, as promised forty years ago in the slogan "Growing for You".