LCQ15: MTR railway services

     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Lam Tai-fai and a written reply by the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, in the Legislative Council today (May 14):


     It has been reported that the occurrence of a number of incidents in relation to the railway services of the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) in recent months and its fare increase year after year have aroused public discontent. On April 27 this year, the service of the entire East Rail Line was paralysed for over half an hour, followed by another two temporary failures later on the same day, because the signalling system and its backup system malfunctioned concurrently, resulting in the Operations Control Centre at Tsing Yi (OCC) being unable to locate the trains, and therefore the services had to be suspended. Under the "Service Performance Arrangement" implemented after the Government's review of the MTR Fare Adjustment Mechanism in early 2013, MTRCL must notify the Transport Department of any MTR service disruption which has lasted for eight minutes or is expected to last for eight minutes or more, and pay a fine for any service disruption of 31 minutes or more according to the length of disruption. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it has looked into the specific causes of the aforesaid incidents; whether it knows if MTRCL has conducted a review on how to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents; if such a review has been conducted, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) as it has been reported that the computer systems of OCC, which is responsible for monitoring and controlling the operation of 10 MTR lines, are outdated, whether it knows if MTRCL has assessed whether there will be more failures of the computer systems as a result and the consequences thereof; if such an assessment has been made, of the outcome, when MTRCL will replace the whole system, and the relevant details; if such an assessment has not been made, the reasons for that;

(3) of the cumulative total amount of fines paid by MTRCL since the implementation of the Service Performance Arrangement; the details of the mechanism under which the authorities monitor the return of the full amount of fines by MTRCL to passengers;

(4) whether it knows the measures MTRCL should take, according to the procedures it formulated, in the event of a malfunction of the backup signalling system; of the number of malfunctions of the backup signalling system in the past five years;

(5) whether it has assessed if MTRCL's recent increase in train frequency has accelerated the ageing of the data transmission components in the signalling system, and therefore caused the aforesaid malfunction of the signalling system; if such an assessment has been made, of the outcome; if not, the reasons for that;

(6) whether it knows if MTRCL will review the existing procedures for procuring new models of trains and parts, maintenance and quality control; if MTRCL will do so, when such a review will be conducted, and of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(7) whether it knows the expenditure on maintaining various railway lines in each of the past five years; whether MTRCL will recruit more maintenance staff; if MTRCL will do so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(8) whether it will review the existing Fare Adjustment Mechanism to peg the fare adjustment rate with the level of railway services, so as to press MTRCL to endeavour to improve its services; if it will, when it will do so, and of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(9) whether it will urge MTRCL to expeditiously implement a system of deducting the remunerations of senior management personnel according to the frequency of railway incidents, with a view to pressing its management personnel to endeavour to improve management and service quality; if it will, when MTRCL will implement the system, and of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(10) whether it knows the existing division of responsibilities among the members of the Board of MTRCL;

(11) whether it will require MTRCL to set up an independent committee to investigate the causes of the series of incidents which occurred recently, and make public the findings of the investigation; and

(12) whether it has assessed the losses caused by frequent occurrence of railway service incidents to the community and economy of Hong Kong, and whether members of the public will have doubts about the safety, reliability and quality of railway services; if such an assessment has been made, of the outcome; if not, the reasons for that?


     My reply to Dr Hon Lam Tai-fai's question is as follows:

(1) At 8.09am on April 27, 2014, a breakdown of the data network transmission at Fo Tan Railway House of the East Rail Line (EAL) prevented the Operations Control Centre (OCC) from performing its function of centrally monitoring train operations. As a prudent measure, the OCC immediately suspended the train service on the entire EAL and deployed engineering personnel to conduct on-site inspection. Engineering personnel then re-established the data transmission by rebooting the system, with EAL train service resuming normal at 8.45am. After the incident, the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) installed a data analyser to monitor the original data network transmission. Should there be any instability of the original data network transmission, the problem can be detected and rectified as early as possible.

(2) According to the information provided by MTRCL, three major systems are involved in the operation of MTR train service. They are (i) signalling system; (ii) monitoring and communications system; and (iii) console of the monitoring system for various railway lines.

     Installed along railway tracks and inside the equipment room along the railway lines, the signalling system controls train operations. Its fail-safe design will bring trains to an automatic halt once irregularities are detected, ensuring that trains are kept at a safe distance apart. The Tsing Yi OCC captures the operation status of the signalling system via the data network transmission of the monitoring and communications system.

     The monitoring and communications system of various railway lines is installed inside the equipment room along the railway lines; while the console of the monitoring system is installed in the Tsing Yi OCC, where it is responsible for monitoring train operations, as well as communication with train captains or stations, etc. The OCC also regulates train service as and when necessary. Systems at the OCC are of current proven technology and can fully satisfy the needs for train operations of the whole MTR network. Even in case of system failure, only OCC will be prevented from performing its function of centrally monitoring train operations. Indeed, train operations will remain unaffected. For the EAL incident on April 27, 2014, the OCC has suspended train service as a prudent measure.

     The service disruption of EAL on April 27, 2014 was caused by the breakdown of a router of the data network transmission, as part of the EAL monitoring and communications system at the Fo Tan Railway House. The signalling system for the control of safe operations of trains was not affected. The Transport and Housing Bureau has already urged MTRCL to enhance its regular inspections on all concerned systems.

(3) Since the introduction of the "Service Performance Arrangement" last year, MTRCL has been fined a total of $40.5 million for service disruptions of 31 minutes or above in 2012 and 2013. The proceeds are returned to passengers through the "10% Same Day Second Trip Discount" scheme. The accumulated fine of $13 million due to the incidents in 2012 has been returned to passengers from July 2013 onwards, and the $27.5 million accumulated due to the incidents in 2013 will be returned to passengers starting from June 2014.

     To ensure that the arrangement is in order, MTRCL is required to submit annually to the Government a report prepared by a qualified auditor to verify the number of service disruptions in the previous year and the amount of fine incurred, as well as whether the proceeds have been returned in full to passengers through the "10% Same Day Second Trip Discount" scheme.

(4) According to the procedures laid down by MTRCL, its staff will manually activate the backup system if the data network transmission fails to activate automatically. On April 27, 2014, train operations resumed normal after staff's manual activation of the backup system. According to MTRCL, there was no other failure of automatic activation of the backup system in the past five years other than the abovementioned incident.

(5) The additional data transmission arising from the recent enhancement in train frequency still does not exceed the designed capacity of the data network transmission. According to MTRCL, with routine repair/maintenance and component replacement, the data network transmission has shown no sign of ageing.

(6) and (11) MTRCL all along adopts rigorous quality management procedures for testing newly purchased trains to validate their compliance with performance standards. Such tests include the basic quality checks, dimensional checks, functional tests (e.g. tests on braking and traction systems, train door operations, communications function, train control function and watertightness, etc.), and running operational tests to confirm that the trains are manufactured according to the design and relevant standards. All new trains will be put into service only after they have passed all the required safety and service performance tests and received approval from the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) and Transport Department (TD).

     MTRCL staff are deployed to oversee the key production processes in the factories of system suppliers and manufacturers. Suppliers are required to submit test results to MTRCL, and MTRCL will attend and witness functional tests of different systems and components, such as the traction system, train doors, braking system, pantographs and trainborne signalling system, etc. MTRCL also appoints international experts as independent safety auditors to verify the designs and testing processes of safety-related equipment and systems, including train doors, traction system, couplers, trainborne signalling system, interface of signalling system, wheels and axles, etc. This is to ensure that the procedures comply with international safety specifications.

     Upon arrival in Hong Kong, new trains are subject to the static and dynamic tests to validate that their operation integrates with the existing infrastructure and railway system.

     The various tests as set out above are conducted by MTRCL on newly purchased trains to identify any irregularities in the systems for immediate rectification, so as to ensure operational safety in the future. EMSD will also pay close attention and participate timely in on-site tests conducted in Hong Kong. New trains are put into service only if their safe operation is confirmed after stringent validation.

     In response to the several serious service disruptions related to overhead lines late last year and early this year, MTRCL has engaged an independent overseas expert to conduct a comprehensive review on the MTR overhead line system, covering technical specifications, procurement, quality control, installation and repair/maintenance. The independent overseas expert's review is in good progress, pending for completion within August as expected. In parallel, EMSD also participates in MTRCL's tests of the insulators and verifies the findings. An independent expert has also been engaged by EMSD to further evaluate the result of the review by MTRCL's independent overseas expert. Upon the completion of the two expert reports, the Government will, having regard to the findings, decide whether there is a need to expand the scope of the review to cover other areas of the MTR network.

(7) To maintain high quality railway service and improve facility performance, investment is made each year in the repair, maintenance and upgrade of railway assets. In the past few years, the investment increased from about $4.3 billion in 2009 to about $5.6 billion in 2013. Additional repair/maintenance staff are recruited from time to time to cater for operational needs, with number of staff concerned increasing from around 3 700 in 2009 to around 4 000 in 2013. As the resources for asset repair, maintenance and upgrade are shared among various railway lines, breakdown on investment for individual railway lines is not available.

(8) The Fare Adjustment Mechanism of MTRCL is subject to review once every five years. The last review was due in 2013 and it was completed in April that year. As a result, the "Service Performance Arrangement" has been introduced. Under the arrangement, a fine will be imposed on MTRCL for service disruptions of 31 minutes or above caused by equipment failure or human factors. Proceeds are put into a fare concession account and returned to passengers through the "10% Same Day Second Trip Discount" scheme the following year. "Exemption Events" (i.e. events outside MTRCL's control, such as those caused by passengers' behaviours and bad weather) are excluded under the arrangement.

     The fines imposed for service delay under the "Service Performance Arrangement" are set out below:

Train service                 Fine for each incident
 disruptions                (subject to a maximum of
                            $15 million per incident)
31 minutes or above but
less than or equal to 1 hour     $1 million
More than 1 hour but
less than or equal to 2 hours    $2 million
More than 2 hours but
less than or equal to 3 hours    $3 million
More than 3 hours but
less than or equal to 4 hours    $5 million
Each additional hour
(or part thereof)
exceeding 4 hours                $2.5 million

(9) As regards whether the remuneration of MTRCL's senior management should be reduced in the event of serious service disruptions, the Government has reflected the concerns and views to the Board of MTRCL and requested the Corporation to carefully consider the matter. The Board of MTRCL has followed up and decided to include the occurrence of serious service disruptions as a consideration in the payment of performance-based remuneration to the Corporation's senior management staff in future.
(10) Current division of responsibilities among members of the Board of MTRCL is at Annex. This information can be downloaded from the website of MTRCL.

(12) The operation of a safe, reliable and efficient railway service is paramount to the public transport system in Hong Kong. With respect to train service reliability, the number of incidents of eight minutes or above caused by equipment failure or human factors was 143 in 2013, the lowest since the rail merger in December 2007. The number of incidents in the first quarter of this year was 31, lower than that over the same period of last year (i.e. 34). Despite not showing any downward trend in the safety and reliability of the MTR train service in accordance with the overall statistics, the Government considers that, under the service-oriented premise, immediate and in-depth investigation into every train service incident must be carried out by MTRCL, followed by improvement measures to prevent future recurrence.

     In case of railway incidents, MTRCL will do its utmost to resume normal train service as quickly as possible to minimise the inconvenience to passengers. Before that, MTRCL will provide passengers with the necessary information and contingent assistance to facilitate them to continue their journeys. MTRCL will continue to review such arrangement from time to time, and make efforts in reducing inconvenience to passengers during incidents to the minimum.
     EMSD and TD have all along maintained close liaison with MTRCL, and together will conduct follow-up reviews as well as implement improvement measures after incidents to prevent future recurrence. As mentioned in our reply to parts (6) and (11) above, the Government will, having regard to the findings of the comprehensive review on the MTR overhead line system by the independent overseas expert engaged by MTRCL and the report outcome of the further review conducted by another independent expert engaged by EMSD, decide whether there is a need to expand the scope of the review to cover other areas of the MTR network.

Ends/Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Issued at HKT 13:45