LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 575/95-96
(These minutes have been seen by the Administration)
Ref : CB1/PL/TP/1

LegCo Panel on Transport

Minutes of the Special Meeting held on
Friday, 16 August 1996 at 8:30 a.m.
in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Building

Members present :

    Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin (Deputy Chairman)
    Hon Edward S T HO, OBE, JP
    Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip
    Hon LAU Chin-shek
    Hon LEE Kai-ming
    Hon SIN Chung-kai
    Hon TSANG Kin-shing

Member attending :

    Dr Hon Samuel WONG Ping-wai, MBE, FEng, JP

Members absent :

    Hon Mrs Miriam LAU Kin-yee, OBE, JP (Chairman)
    Hon Mrs Selina CHOW, OBE, JP
    Hon Michael HO un-ka
    Hon LEE Wing-tat
    Dr Hon Philip WONG Yu-hong
    Hon CHAN Wing-chan
    Hon CHEUNG Hon-chung
    Hon CHOY Kan-pui, JP
    Hon Albert HO Chun-yan
    Dr Hon LAW Cheung-kwok
    Hon NGAN Kam-chuen
    Hon Lawrence YUM Sin-ling

Public officers attending :

Acting Secretary for Transport
Mr LAU Kwok-choi
Acting Deputy Secretary for Transport
Mr Daniel AU
Assistant Commissioner for Transport, Transport Department
Mr Ian Morrice
Chief Inspecting Officer (Railways)
Senior Chief Inspecting Officer (Railways)

Attendance by invitation :

From the United Kingdom Railway Inspectorate

Mr Alan Cooksey
Deputy Chief Inspecting Officer

Clerk in attendance:

    Mrs Vivian KAM

Staff in attendance :

Mr Billy TAM
Senior Assistant Secretary (1)4

I Briefing by Mr Alan Cooksey, Deputy Chief Inspecting Officer of the United Kingdom Railway Inspectorate, on his investigation into the Mass Transit Railway system

Hon Edward S T HO advised members that as Hon Mrs Miriam LAU Kin-yee, Chairman, was out of town, and Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin, Deputy Chairman, had not yet arrived, he would chair the meeting until the latter’s arrival. He welcomed representatives from the Administration and Mr Alan Cooksey, Deputy Chief Inspecting Officer of the United Kingdom Railway Inspectorate, to the meeting.

2. At the Chairman’s invitation, Mr Paul LEUNG advised that Mr Cooksey had completed investigations into the recent series of incidents concerning Mass Transit Railway (MTR) services as well as the incident on 25 July 1996. In the report prepared by Mr Cooksey tabled at the meeting, assessments had been made on the Mass Transit Railway Corporation’s (MTRC) maintenance work and the safety and reliability of service provided. Mr LEUNG added that Mr Cooksey had been providing advice to the Government on MTR safety for many years, and that he was also in Hong Kong in 1993 to investigate another incident. He further advised that while an extract of the report in Chinese had been tabled at the meeting, the Chinese translation of the full report would be made available as soon as possible.

(Post-meeting note: The reports tabled at the meeting were circulated to absent members vide LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 1969/95-96, and the full translation of Mr Cooksey’s report in Chinese was circulated vide LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 2166/95-96.)

3. With the aid of visual aids, Mr Cooksey briefed members on the incident of rail fracture on 25 July 1996 as contained in the report tabled at the meeting. He concluded that the incident occurred as a result of the development of fatigue crack which led to rapid fracture, but emphasized that cracks were not an unusual feature with railways.

4. Turning to the recommendations in the report, Mr Cooksey said that he was confident that the conclusions were justified based on his 18 years of experience on the railway system in Hong Kong. In his view, MTRC was running an extremely reliable and safe system and had maintained high standards of performance notwithstanding the exceptional demand placed on the system. He had held discussions with the MTRC Chairman, senior managers and engineers on the maintenance regime, and was satisfied that the system was robust, soundly based and well co-ordinated. Mr Cooksey also highlighted the fact that while the system in Hong Kong was relatively new when compared with systems elsewhere in the world, it would be unrealistic to expect 100% reliability. (Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin arrived at that juncture and took over the chair.)

5. In commenting on the series of MTR incidents in 1996, Mr Cooksey said that there had been a decline in the number of incidents causing delays of five minutes or more since 1990, although the number of passengers affected had increased. He advised that there were no single causes for failure nor single pieces of equipment regularly failing, but that there were common features the details on which had been set out in the appendices in the report. The causes of the incidents could be grouped under the two categories of behaviour of people such as passengers falling onto the tracks and that of equipment failure. Two-thirds of the 99 incidents since April 1996 involved signalling equipment of which 18 involved signalling equipment on board trains. In general, the proportion of passenger journeys on time and of trains on time were above-average when compared with other railway systems.

6. In continuing, Mr Cooksey said that MTRC had a structured, pro-active maintenance philosophy and a good maintenance system. The Corporation also set targets for reliability in standard of service. The nightly inspection of MTR tracks represented a far more demanding regime than those of weekly inspections in other railway systems. He added that trains had a design life of 30 years, and that the rolling stock in Hong Kong was about mid-life. As regards the signalling system, Mr Cooksey said that MTRC had an advanced signalling system at the time of opening. The climate in Hong Kong however had had an effect on the reliability of the system, and electrical circuit problems were attributable to the weather conditions particularly in the summer months. Mr Cooksey then summarized his recommendations as contained in the report.

7. Before concluding, Mr Cooksey drew attention to the significant number of times (18,000 a year) the passenger alarm plunger was operated. Originally designed to warn drivers of physical dangers, it had developed into a different purpose of serving as a request for help when people were taken ill. He had asked MTRC to consider improving upon this particular aspect, and also to improve the quality of air in the trains, and to resolve the problem of disruptions by disgruntled passengers. He also saw a need for MTRC to publicize and explain both the advantages and problems which new systems such as the signalling system might generate. Lastly, Mr Cooksey said that parts of the network were particularly critical in terms of capacity and to this end, had recommended that MTRC should work with the Administration to consider improving the system to meet the demand of the future.

8. The Chairman thanked Mr Cooksey for a detailed report. In the ensuing discussion session, members raised a number of concerns on the incident on 25 July 1996 in particular, and on the MTR system in general. Discussions on the former are set out in paragraphs 9 and 10, while discussions on the general aspects are summarized in paragraphs 11 to 19.

Incident on 25 July 1996

9. Dr Hon Samuel WONG Ping-wai sought clarification on when the central track was last replaced and whether the other location where a hairline crack had been found was also a switch rail. In response, Mr Cooksey advised that the central track had been replaced in 1992 although he would have to confirm this with MTRC; the speed of the car being diverted onto the central track was travelling at a regular speed of 65 kph. He confirmed that the other section concerned was a corresponding switch rail that was making the passback onto the original line.

10. In response to Hon Edward S T HO, Mr Cooksey said that all places with turnouts had switch rails. Three turnouts came from the same manufacturer as those in Lai King, and these would be replaced by MTRC. He believed that this might just be related to one batch of rails as no similar problems had been located elsewhere. On whether improvements were possible to enable early detection, Mr Cooksey said that fatigue cracking was common. The rail in question broke very rapidly and slightly untypically. He emphasized that railway wheels were tolerant and would travel safely over the crack without major accidents, and that the rail in question actually broke as the train went over it.

General aspects of the MTR system

11. Members enquired about the effect of humidity on the operation of the signalling system, the reason for MTRC having put up with the different usage of the alarm system for such a long period, the feasibility of introducing different systems for passengers and equipment, the possibility of stationing qualified medical staff in stations, and the cost for maintenance per kilometre of rail.

12. Mr Cooksey responded as follows:

  1. there were lots of electrical circuits in trains. If there was plenty of moisture say during the summer months, the resistence of the ground of the concrete of the track would go down and there would be more chance of a circuit failing. The signalling system was a "fail safe" one which would make a cautious judgement and stop the train until the position was clarified. This was also one of the reasons for MTRC to replace the existing system with a new one which would use a different form of track circuit technology. Although the tunnels might not be directly exposed to rain or water, this could still be brought into the tunnel by the trains;
  2. MTRC would have recognized the different usage of the alarm system but might have to live with the situation;
  3. MTRC had been requested to consider developing two levels of emergency alarm systems and to this end would be looking at an enhancement to the information system on the trains;
  4. the presence of medical staff in MTR stations would be a possible approach and this would need to be considered by MTRC; and
  5. while MTRC did spend considerably more resources on the system than other systems, details on the maintenance cost per kilometre would have to be provided by MTRC.

On the last point, Mr LEUNG offered to obtain the relevant information from MTRC for members’ information.

(Post-meeting note: The relevant information from MTRC was circulated to members vide LegCo Paper no. CB(1) 476/96-97.)

13. Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip said that the series of incidents were not isolated incidents but were common ones. He also held the view that the report had pointed to the fact that the MTR system was ageing, and expressed dissatisfaction with statements to the contrary made by senior MTRC staff who in his view had no understanding of the basic problems. In reply, Mr Cooksey emphasized that there were no "ageing" problems with the system. When reference was made in paragraph 58 of the report to ageing problems, this referred only to the electro-mechanical relays in some of the train equipment which were not connected with the signalling system. He supplemented that some signalling problems stemmed from the nature and design of the system and were not specifically linked to an ageing system. Mr Cooksey assured members that MTRC had proper management processes regarding renewal and replacement and affirmed that he would have said so in the report had there been problems with the senior management.

14. Hon LAU Chin-shek pointed out that the need for MTR services in Hong Kong was different from those in other cities as it served as the major mode of public transport. He enquired about the reason for not having made comparisons with other Asian cities instead of those in the States and Europe, whether improvements were sufficient to cope with the significant increase in passenger volume, and if improvements to aspects other than the signalling system were warranted.

15. Mr Cooksey explained that the comparative figures quoted in the report were on a group of similar metro railway systems which had asked research staff from a university in the United Kingdom to make comparisons. Japan had a different culture and population while the system in Singapore was lightly used. The system in Hong Kong was by far the most densely used one as compared with systems anywhere else in the world. On the scope for further improvements, he had made a recommendation for MTRC to work jointly with the Government as Hong Kong’s transport problem rested not solely with MTRC. As far as MTRC was concerned, it had the right equipment and the network to be able to deliver, and the improvements being made such as the replacement of the signalling system was aimed at the future. Although certain areas might require fine-tuning, the majority of the MTR system was more than adequate and would last well into the next century.

16. In response to members on the timeframe for improvements to other railway projects, Mr Paul LEUNG said that the Railway Development Strategy in 1994 had identified three priority railway projects: the Western Corridor Railway, the Ma On Shan and Tai Wai rail link, and the MTR Tseung Kwan O extension. At the same time, the Administration would also monitor closely the development of existing railway systems. On the other hand, the Third Comprehensive Transport Study would commence shortly to provide the basis for making necessary changes to the transport policy as a result of changed economic and population situations.

17. Hon SIN Chung-kai made reference to the mass transit system in London and Paris where there were inter-connecting rail systems and where passengers could turn to other routes if a particular section of rails failed. He enquired if there were policy decisions to connect the various rail systems in Hong Kong. Hon SIN Chung-kai also expressed concern on paragraph 104 of the report recommending that MTRC should consider restricting demand on the MTR. He held the view that since the rapid population growth in Hong Kong would naturally increase demand, such a recommendation was unrealistic. He wanted to ascertain the unacceptable level of MTR service standard. In response, Mr Cooksey said that according to his understanding, MTRC had planned for a number of links. As regards the second point on the maximum passenger volume of MTR, Mr Cooksey said that there were no single factors that would set a limit on how much traffic the system could carry. The design capacity of the platform and passageways in the stations, the need for additional escalators, or a complete re-structuring of the stations would all have an impact. In reply to Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip for the Administration to enhance monitoring of MTRC’s services, Mr LEUNG said that the Corporation was providing a sterling service but it was unrealistic to expect 100% reliability. Mr Cooksey stressed that there was no evidence whatsoever of negligence on the part of the Corporation.

18. On Hon TSANG Kin-sing’s suggestion for the installation of platform screen doors to enhance safety, Mr Cooksey advised that these were installed in Singapore mainly for the purpose of keeping air-conditioning within stations although the screen doors had the added benefit of guarding against the falling off of passengers onto the tracks. Platform screen doors also existed in UK and would be installed in the Airport Railway. He drew attention to the fact that the service would have to be aligned very accurately. Otherwise, it would be necessary to reset the position of the trains and this would cause delays. He had in fact looked at the possibility in Hong Kong but had concluded that while this would be easier with straight platforms, curved platforms would create problems.

19. The Chairman noted that many recommendations in the report related to matters of principle but there were no concrete proposals as to how the recommendations should be implemented. Mr Cooksey said in response that the responsibility for safety of railways rested with railway operators rather than railway regulatory bodies. The latter’s role was to outline the goal whereupon the former would be left to discharge its responsibility of working out the best ways to achieve the objectives. Mr Cooksey emphasized that there was already a high level of safety and reliability with the system in Hong Kong and that there were no obvious "deficiencies" requiring immediate remedies. He would wait for MTRC to make firm proposals and would consider these further.

20. Mr LEUNG advised that the Administration had forwarded a copy of the report to the Chairman of the MTRC and had requested an early response. The Chairman concluded that the Panel would further consider the issue upon receipt of MTRC’s response.

II Any other business

21. There being no other business, the meeting closed at 10:10 am.

Legislative Council Secretariat
23 December 1996

Last Updated on 21 Aug. 1998