LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 574/95-96
(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, 26 July 1996 at 10:45 am
in Conference Room B of the Legislative Council Building

Members present :

    Hon Mrs Miriam LAU Kin-yee, OBE, JP (Chairman)
    Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin (Deputy Chairman)
    Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip
    Hon CHAN Wing-chan
    Dr Hon LAW Cheung-kwok
    Hon TSANG Kin-shing
    Hon Lawrence YUM Sin-ling

Members absent :

    Hon Mrs Selina CHOW, OBE, JP
    Hon Edward S T HO, OBE, JP
    Hon Michael HO Mun-ka
    Hon LEE Wing-tat
    Dr Hon Philip WONG Yu-hong
    Hon CHEUNG Hon-chung
    Hon CHOY Kan-pui, JP
    Hon Albert HO Chun-yan
    Hon LAU Chin-shek
    Hon LEE Kai-ming
    Hon NGAN Kam-chuen
    Hon SIN Chung-kai

Member attending :

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

Public officers attending :

    Mr Gordon SIU, JP, Secretary for Transport
    Mr Paul LEUNG, JP, Deputy Secretary for Transport
    Mr Isaac CHOW, Deputy Secretary for Transport
    Mr K M WOO, Acting Chief Inspecting Officer (Railways)
    Mrs Lily YAM, JP, Commissioner for Transport

Attendance by invitation :

From the Mass Transit Railway Corporation

Mr Bill Donald
Operations Director
Mr Andrew McCusker
Operations Engineering Design Manager
Mrs Miranda LEUNG
Corporate Relations Manager

Clerk in attendance:

    Mrs Vivian KAM

Staff in attendance :

Mr Billy TAM
Senior Assistant Secretary (1)4

Briefing by the Mass Transit Railway Corporation on recent incidents of disruption of Mass Transit Railway services

The Chairman advised that the special meeting had been called as members were concerned with the series of incidents of disruption of Mass Transit Railway (MTR) services, the most recent one of which took place on 25 July 1996. As the Secretary for Transport had announced his intention to invite a specialist from the United Kingdom (UK) to conduct investigations, the Panel had invited representatives from both the Administration and the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC) to the special meeting to brief members on the causes for the disruptions and plans for avoiding similar recurrences.

Incident on 25 July 1996

2. At the Chairman’s invitation, Mr Bill Donald of the MTRC described the sequence of the events on 25 July 1996 on the basis of briefing notes tabled at the meeting. In summary, a train operator reported a suspected rail defect at 9:22 am on the Tsuen Wan Line. A temporary speed restriction was imposed initially and after observation of the rail, it was decided to effect a temporary repair and train services were suspended at 10:42 am. The rail break was repaired by 12:13 pm and normal train services resumed at 12:40 pm. The MTRC was investigating the cause of the incident and had arranged for a metallurgical analysis of the section of rail concerned.

(Post-meeting notes : The briefing notes were circulated to absent members vide LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 1923/95-96.)

3. Mrs Lily YAM supplemented that upon receipt of an Amber Alert from MTRC at 10:24 am, the Transport Department (TD) had alerted the Kowloon Motor Bus Co. (1933) Ltd (KMB). and the Hong Kong and Yaumati Ferry Co. Ltd; TD subsequently received a Red Alert at 10:48 am. Additional buses were mobilized to provide 56 extra despatches and around 7,200 passengers were carried. The frequency of ferry services increased by five although the number of passengers carried was only 387. Throughout the incident, TD had liaised closely with MTRC to keep track of developments.

4. Mr Gordon SIU said that the last time a similar incident with the MTRC took place about four years ago but passenger services were not affected then; a similar rail failure which did affect passenger services occurred some 15 years back. He also recalled a specialist from UK having been invited to Hong Kong in 1993 to inspect the rail system. Having personally discussed the recent incident with staff from within the Administration responsible for the monitoring of railways, and in view of the nature of incident of rail crack which was different from those of other mishaps, he had concluded that there was need for the expert from UK to re-visit Hong Kong. Accordingly, he had written to the expert on 25 July 1996.

5. While commending the train operator for his outstanding performance in averting a major mishap, members raised a series of questions on how the rail crack was detected, the time taken for the Emergency Repair Team to be on site, and the reasons for the crack not having been detected during the nightly inspections. Mr Donald responded as follows:

  1. the train operator heard something unusual as he passed through the section concerned. It was part of the training for staff to report unusual incidents and he had acted accordingly;
  2. the Emergency Repair Team had to be sent from the Kowloon Bay Depot after loading the necessary equipment to effect a repair. The journey was difficult at that time of day in the morning. It was necessary to run test trains over the repaired rail to observe its performance before resuming full passenger operations. As such, the time scale involved was as short as possible and was commendable in all the circumstances; and
  3. MTRC had a maintenance regime consisting of daily inspections at night, monthly inspections in the cross-overs and turn-outs, and monthly inspections of the whole system by an ultrasonic testing vehicle. In addition, dye-penetration tests were conducted on the turn-outs once every six months. Staff, including managers and experienced supervisors, were deployed each night to work on structural repairs, rail renewals and other maintenance activities. One possibility of the crack not having been detected during inspection the night before was that it had not been progressed to the point of being visible, it was possible for the crack to be present but not to be seen. Findings of the investigation would have to await the results of the metallurgical examinations.

Mr Donald confirmed that the laboratory analysis was being undertaken by the City University of Hong Kong and the results should be available in one month.

6. In response to a criticism that passengers were not informed of what was happening during the incident on 25 July 1996, Mr Donald acknowledged that there was always room for improvement in this respect and that MTRC was always trying to improve the dissemination of information to passengers. He assured members that complaints were being looked at individually.

7. Hon CHAN Wing-chan, on behalf of the Federation of Trade Unions and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, also expressed concern about the incident and enquired about plans for preventing similar recurrences. Mr Donald pointed out that the system was a heavily trafficked one. All incidents were examined carefully, irrespective of whether they were the result of major or minor defects. There was however no evidence in the current incident which appeared to show that the maintenance regime was wrong. Mr Andrew McCusker added that MTRC was in the process of introducing new signalling equipment and this would lead to improvements in railway reliability when the works were complete.

8. Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip criticized the Administration for an inadequate contingency plan which led to chaotic situations in the MTR stations concerned; he noted that train service had already resumed by the time staff from TD arrived at the Mei Foo Station. In response, Mrs YAM re-iterated that the department had initiated contact with KMB immediately upon receipt of the Amber Alert from MTRC, and the bus conductors at the terminus in Mei Foo had maintained close contact with the KMB emergency control centre. At the same time, TD staff had been sent to various MTR stations to observe the situations. She considered that the measures taken were the most appropriate under the circumstances but would nevertheless review the process to see if there were areas for further improvements.

MTRC maintenance regime

9. In response to members on the nightly inspection system and the ultrasonic device, Mr Donald said that MTRC’s inspection regime with nightly foot patrol inspections was very thorough and would certainly be regarded as of a high standard in any international comparisons. There were about 100 kilometres of rail in total with another 40 kilometres in the depot. Five kilometres of tracks were examined ultrasonically per night and 12 kilometres of tracks were renewed each year. As regards the ultrasonic device, Mr Donald emphasized that it was an excellent and proven system in which MTRC had great confidence. The device looked not just at the joints but at the tracks in its entirety. To further upgrade the system, MTRC had placed an order for a new ultrasonic testing vehicle which would increase the rate of inspections.

10. As regards the sufficiency of the budget for preventive maintenance programmes and whether the frequency of inspections could be increased, Mr Donald said that there was no evidence of insufficiency in the present regimes although this would be reviewed in the light of the incident concerned. The budget for maintenance works had never been under difficulties or subject to financial constraints; it had been constantly under review and upgraded where necessary to keep the maintenance work at the same standards.

Performance record

11. Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip was of the view that the series of incidents were not isolated mishaps but reflected a major error of MTRC. He commented that the diversion of MTRC’s attention to real estate development activities and to the construction of the Airport Railway (AR) had affected basic MTR services. He called for a review of MTRC’s corporate structure. Dr Hon LAW Cheung-kwok further suggested that the salaries of high level staff in KCRC should be reduced to reflect their accountability for the series of mishaps. Hon TSANG Kin-shing also questioned if there were other means through which such cracks could be detected.

12. In response, Mr Donald confirmed that no specific equipment was installed on trains for such a purpose, but he was unaware of any such device being fitted on mass transit systems elsewhere; the night-time inspection regimes were the key to identification of rail defects. He emphasized that only one out of 78 rail problems in 1995 was not spotted by the night inspections. MTRC staff were well-trained and safety awareness was always their first priority. Mr Donald also refuted criticisms of any diversion of attention to other MTRC activities. He advised that new projects were handled separately by staff dedicated to those tasks. He also referred members to a chart tabled at the meeting on "Five minutes and above delays : 1990 - 1996 (June)". The chart showed that, for 5 minutes delays or more, there had been a monthly average of 16.5 incidents of equipment defect in 1996, and 29 incidents of delays of all types for the month of July 1996 (up to 26 July 1996). The latter was a cause for concern on account of the number of passengers affected, but reference to the chart showed it was not an unduly high figure for any single month. Mr Donald concluded that 1996 had proved to be not a particularly bad year as far as performance record was concerned, to date, and in comparison with previous years it was likely to achieve a record equal to or not far short of the best of previous years.

(Post-meeting note : A copy of the chart was circulated to absent members vide LegCo Paper No. CB(1) 1923/95-96.)

13. On Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip’s suggestion for a review of the MTRC corporate structure, Mr SIU said that the MTRC was providing a train service to Hong Kong 24 hours a day non-stop and that it would be premature to judge at that early stage that the incidents were attributed to problems with the corporate structure. He emphasized that he would request the Chairman of MTRC to provide a response to the specialist’s report.

14. On whether MTRC staff experienced in signalling maintenance had been transferred to work on the AR, Mr Donald said that this had happened with a few staff as the two systems were similar. He added that a mixture of new and re-deployed staff were working on the AR, and that detailed plans had been drawn up for taking over the operation of the new railway. He emphasized that the re-deployment was made in the interest of the company and for the career development of staff, and that this had in no way weakened the strength of the operations staff nor affected the ability of MTRC in operating MTR service. Mr Donald affirmed that MTRC would manage its resources to its best effect in running both systems. At members’ request, he undertook to provide a written response on the number of staff re-deployed from the MTR to the AR.

Scope of the study by the specialist

15. In response to members, Mr SIU affirmed that the specialist would be asked to conduct an overall examination of the whole MTR system. He said that while the primary objective for inviting the specialist to Hong Kong would be to examine the recent series of incidents and consider areas of improvements, the specialist would also be asked to study all related issues with a view to drawing up a statistically substantiated, technological and scientific conclusion. Hon Albert CHAN Wai-yip remarked that experts from countries other than the UK which were advanced in railway development should also be invited to inspect the mass transit system.

16. Hon Zachary WONG Wai-yin suggested that the Administration should consider introducing a compensation mechanism whereby the MTRC would have to compensate passengers affected as a result of flaws of MTRC. This would hopefully force the MTRC into enhancing its maintenance of the system. Mr SIU agreed to consider the suggestion.

17. At the Chairman’s request, the Administration undertook to arrange for the specialist from UK to discuss his findings with the Panel upon completion of the study.

18. There being no other business, the meeting ended at 12:10 pm.

Legislative Council Secretariat
23 December 1996

Last Updated on 21 Aug. 1998