Go to main content
LCQ7: Upgrade of signalling systems for railway lines
     Following is a question by the Hon Luk Chung-hung and a written reply by the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, in the Legislative Council today (November 23):


     The MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) is progressing with the replacement of the signalling systems of, and the conduct of on-site tests for, the East Rail Line and seven urban railway lines one after the other. MTRCL will conduct tests on the signalling system on various sections of a railway line during non-traffic hours at night, during which the new signalling system will be activated while the existing one will be suspended. MTRCL will stop testing and revert to the existing signalling system before departure of the first train in the morning. Some members of the public have expressed their worries that the testing arrangements may result in the existing signalling system not working smoothly, thus giving rise to disruptions of railway service. If such service disruptions occur during morning peak hours, tens of thousands of passengers may be affected. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it knows the schedules for replacing and conducting tests on the signalling systems of various MTR lines; if it knows, set out such information by MTR line and station;

(2) as MTRCL has formulated contingency plans to deal with railway service disruptions which may be caused by the tests on the signalling systems, how such plans deal with railway service disruptions during morning peak hours caused by the tests, including (i) the passenger flow management plan of MTRCL, (ii) the staffing establishment of the Customer Service Rapid Response Unit of MTRCL, and (iii) whether MTRCL has assessed if that staffing level is sufficient to cope with incidents of large-scale disruptions to railway service; whether the relevant government departments and other operators of public transport have formulated contingency plans to deal with the aforesaid service disruptions; if they have, of the details of the contingency plans;

(3) whether it knows if MTRCL has briefed the relevant District Councils and local residents on (i) the railway sections and stations involved in, and the risk of railway service disruptions caused by, the tests on the signalling systems, and (ii) the details of the contingency plans formulated for service disruptions; and

(4) how the authorities monitor the progress of the signalling system replacement projects and test runs as well as the appropriateness of the overall arrangements, in order to ensure that MTRCL maintains the provision of safe and reliable railway services?



     The signalling system is the hub of railway operation.  It comprises different components, including central computer, computers at different levels, train-borne computers, back-up computers, as well as equipment which are installed at trackside and inside equipment rooms along railway lines.  At present, the signalling systems of various MTR railway lines deploy more than 8 100 train trips every day in total, providing safe, reliable and smooth railway services to passengers.  Since the loading of the signalling systems of certain railway lines have reached their limits, only by means of upgrading the signalling systems can the carrying capacity of various railway lines be increased and the overall reliability and efficiency of railway services be further enhanced. 

     The MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL) will introduce new signalling systems for seven MTR lines (including Tsuen Wan Line, Island Line, Kwun Tong Line, Tseung Kwan O Line, Disneyland Resort Line, Tung Chung Line and Airport Express), of which works will be completed in phases starting from 2018.  The commissioning schedule of the new signalling systems is at Annex 1.  After the completion of the signalling system upgrading works, the carrying capacity of those railway lines which are benefited from the works can be increased by around 10 per cent respectively.  The last phase of the works is expected to be completed by 2026.

     Besides, as part of the future "North-South Corridor" of the Shatin to Central Link (SCL), the signalling system of the East Rail Line has to be upgraded to cater for the increase in train frequency.  It is anticipated that after the replacement of the signalling system, the East Rail Line will be able to increase the train frequency from currently 20 trips per hour to a maximum of 27 trips per hour.
     As the signalling system involves tens of thousands of electronic components, internationally, no railway signalling systems are completely fault-free.  Major signalling system upgrades may cause the system to become unstable, and the railway service may be more vulnerable to disruption.  This is inevitable during all system upgrading works.  Overseas experiences indicate that, to avoid such risks, some railways would have their services suspended completely when their signalling systems are undergoing major upgrades until the completion of works.  Similar practice is not appropriate for implementation in Hong Kong, because public transport services (including railway) in other places are generally not as well developed as in Hong Kong and the number of passengers affected by service suspension is relatively smaller.  The popularity and unique position of the Hong Kong public transport system requires the MTRCL to maintain but not lower its service level during its signalling system upgrade.  Therefore, it is crucial and rather challenging to complete a smooth upgrade of the signalling systems while minimising the risk of subjecting the railway service to the impact of the works.

     My reply to various parts of the Hon Luk Chung-hung's question is as follows:

(1) Prior to commissioning, the new signalling systems have to be subject to a long period of tests conducted in a progressive manner to ensure its smooth operation.  Such tests include simulation tests at the test-tracks in depots and on-site tests at main lines.  To minimise the impact on train services, the on-site tests at main lines will be conducted during non-traffic hours at night.

     According to the MTRCL, the on-site tests at main lines for the signalling system of the East Rail Line commenced in late October this year.  The first stage test covers the sections near the Racecourse Station.  Every time when conducting the test, the new signalling system will be activated after the end of passenger train services for trains to run at these sections, while the existing signalling system will be suspended, to test whether the new system is able to control train operation with precision.  After completion of tests at night, the MTRCL will switch the signalling system back to the existing one to prepare for provision of train service next morning.  Subject to the progress of the first stage test, the MTRCL plans to progressively extend the test to sections near the University Station and Fo Tan Station in end-2016 and the first quarter of 2017, and then progressively to other sections of the East Rail Line.  The entire test will last for an estimated two to three years and will be completed progressively between end-2018 and 2019. 

     Similar on-site tests will commence along the Tsuen Wan Line in end-2016 or early 2017.  The first stage on-site test will cover sections between Mei Foo Station and Lai Chi Kok Station and will extend progressively to other sections.  The entire test is scheduled for completion in 2018.

     As the new signalling systems of other railway lines will be put into operation later, the testing timetable will also be formulated at a later time.

(2) As mentioned above, major signalling system upgrades may cause the system to become unstable, and the railway service may be more vulnerable to disruption.  As indicated by the MTRCL, the testing of the new system, which involves switching to and from the existing system, may cause some hiccup or malfunctioning at times.  When a problem occurs, safety always comes first and the MTRCL has to ensure that the problem is fully rectified before resuming normal train service.  As such, the train service of the next morning may be affected.  Once there are malfunctions, according to experience, completion of repairs normally takes about dozens of minutes to two hours, depending on the causes and seriousness of the malfunctioning.  During emergency repairs, trains may have to reduce speed or stop and passengers may need to be detrained.

     In view of possible railway service disruptions during signalling system upgrades, the MTRCL has carried out risk assessment covering all possible risks during the different stages of works and testing.  Relevant measures have been formulated on the basis of the existing contingency mechanism for railway service delays (salient points of existing contingency plans are at Annex 2).  In case of railway service delays, the MTRCL will, where situation warrants, activate suitable measures, including deploying more staff to the affected stations to assist passengers.  The MTRCL has established a dedicated Customer Service Rapid Response Unit (CSRRU), with around 90 members, to provide additional support focusing on customer service on top of the manpower stationed at individual stations.  The MTRCL will from time to time review the number of members of the CSRRU as necessary.  Should train service be suspended due to incidents, the MTRCL will provide shuttle bus services to take passengers to nearby unaffected MTR stations to continue with their journey.  The contingency plan formulated by the MTRCL for railway service disruption is subject to the agreement of the Transport Department (TD).

     If there are large crowds at stations due to railway service disruption in individual stations, the MTRCL will activate appropriate crowd management measures, including adjusting the direction of escalators linking the concourse and platform or closing some entry gates, to control the number of passengers at the platform. 
     Moreover, in case of railway service disruption, the MTRCL will disseminate train information to passengers through different channels as soon as possible, including broadcasts at stations and inside train compartments, LCD information panels at stations, web page and smartphone applications.
     According to the MTRCL, the above contingency measures were activated to meet actual needs during past railway incidents, and these measures could reduce the impact of the incidents on passengers.  The MTRCL will from time to time review the effectiveness of these contingency measures with reference to actual operational experience.

     In case of a railway incident, the 24-hour Emergency Transport Coordination Centre of the TD will, in response to the situation, communicate and coordinate with the MTRCL, other government departments and the public transport operators, with a view to implementing relevant public transport service arrangements, including enhancing franchised bus and Green Minibus services in the affected area where necessary to help divert passenger flow.

     It should be emphasised that although the contingency plans can help ease the inconvenience to passengers caused by any service disruption that may arise from the MTRCL's major signalling system upgrades, railway is after all a mass carrier system of the largest scale with high carrying capacity.  If service disruption of a more serious nature occurs unfortunately, even with other road-based public transport modes, including franchised buses, providing emergency support services, their carrying capacities and efficiency would not be comparable with that of the railway system.  Such circumstances would inevitably cause inconvenience to passengers to a certain extent, hence passengers' understanding will be needed.

(3) According to the MTRCL, it has been communicating with various stakeholders in the community and, depending on actual situation and needs, arranging briefing with the Legislative Council and District Council (DC) Members on the MTR train service, from time to time.  In view of the upgrade of the signalling system of the East Rail Line and the on-site test being conducted, the MTRCL has earlier briefed Members of the Traffic and Transport Committees of the North, Tai Po and Sha Tin DCs on the details of the upgrading works and tests, risks that they may involve and the potential impact on railway services, and relevant contingency measures.  With the commencement of tests on the signalling systems of the other railway lines progressively, the MTRCL will provide stakeholders (including DC Members) with timely updates through different channels and by various means subject to actual circumstances.

     In addition, the MTRCL will directly provide all passengers with information on the signalling system upgrades through platforms such as the electronic media, newspapers and social media, including producing short videos for airing on television and social media, and inviting the press to briefing on the upgrading works, so as to strengthen public understanding of the necessity of the works and the contingency measures put in place by the MTRCL.
(4) As the statutory regulatory authority on railway safety, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) monitors the signalling system upgrades of various railway lines, to ensure that the new signalling systems will operate safely and railway safety will not be compromised in the course of the upgrading works and tests for the new signalling systems.  The MTRCL will appoint independent experts to offer advice in respect of the upgrading works.  It is also required to submit a risk assessment report to the EMSD to ensure that the new systems meet international safety standards.  The EMSD holds regular meetings with the MTRCL to hear the Corporation's report on the upgrading works, including the results of safety performance tests conducted in respect of the new systems by the MTRCL.  The EMSD personnel will observe the on-site tests on the new signalling systems conducted by the MTRCL to ensure their safe operation.  In case of railway incidents due to signalling system faults during the upgrading works and tests on the new signalling systems, the EMSD will conduct investigations as per established mechanism to look into the causes.  Where necessary, the EMSD will ask the MTRCL to make improvements, and will follow up on the MTRCL's progress in implementing the improvement measures.

     Besides, the TD will continue to liaise closely with the MTRCL to understand possible railway incidents and their potential impact on railway services in the course of the upgrading works and tests for the new signalling systems.  The TD will also discuss with the MTRCL relevant contingency plans to ensure that such plans can be effectively activated where necessary to minimise the impact of incidents on passengers.
Ends/Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Issued at HKT 16:16
Today's Press Releases