MTR Proceeds With Train Purchase Despite Safety Complaints

Hong Kong railways upgrade
By Lin Yi
Lin Yi
Lin Yi
July 15, 2016 Updated: July 16, 2016

HONG KONG—MTR Corporation signed a contract with a mainland Chinese company to build new trains after they knew the trains Singapore bought from the same company were found to have quality problems, according to FactWire’s reports in early July 2016.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, Secretary for Transport and Housing, said the Bureau was not aware of quality problems with the trains until the report by FactWire was published.

However, FactWire later found out that Cheung received multiple emails from January to August last year complaining of an “underframe cracking problem” and “irregularities” in MTR’s tender procedure.

The emails pointed out that the regular tendering procedures for train contracts were not followed, and there were no factory visits or formal meetings with the potential suppliers. The email senders urged the Bureau to intervene in the tendering process and MTR to inspect and consider the contractors’ track record.

However, MTR still went ahead and ordered 93 new urban line trains from Qingdao CSR Sifang, costing HK$6 billion.

FactWire reported that the 35 C151A trains CSR Sifang manufactured for SMRT Trains in Singapore have been found to be faulty, with the glass next to passenger seats shattering, an uninterruptible power supply battery exploding during repair, and the train underframe sub-floor cracking.

MTR also ordered 9 CSR Sifang CRH380A train sets for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL) in 2012. These are due for delivery this September.

FactWire stated that it took only 9 months to complete the procurement process of the urban line trains, from inviting tenders to awarding the contract to CSR Sifang. For the past 10 years, MTR’s other open tenders of contracts for new trains have taken 14 to 15 months ─ in other words, the decision time of this recent tender was shortened by up to 6 months.

MTR aware of the problems

MTR explained on July 7, after the FactWire 2nd report was released, that they were already aware of the technical problems with the Singapore trains in 2014. They were told by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority that the defects would not be a safety issue.

However, LegCo and Sai Kung District Council member Gary Fan Kwok-wai, who is on the Traffic and Transport Committee, takes the poor quality of the trains very seriously. MTR Projects Director Philco Wong had claimed previously that there were no defects, but it turned out otherwise, Fan said.

“The government must find out why the Transport and Housing Bureau and the MTR Corporation went ahead to procure the trains in 2015,” Fan said. “The bureau was tipped off last year about the poor quality of their trains.”

LegCo member Michael Tien Puk-sun, who chairs the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, suspects the Bureau was aware of the issues beforehand.

 “The participants in a tender must be assessed. The rules currently do not require a bidder to disclose whether their trains have ever been recalled. That is utterly not right,” Tien said.

“What good is the tender if such important information about the bidder does not have to be disclosed?” said Tien.

Tien also questioned why MTR did not diversify the risks and instead placed a big order for trains with a single company.

“Hong Kong places high value on quality. Wouldn’t you agree that it doesn’t matter if we pay slightly higher? As Hongkongers, we don’t always insist on getting the cheapest,” said Tien.

He has written to MTR requesting an on-site visit to be arranged for LegCo members to observe the production process in Qingdao and to meet with CSR Sifang’s management.

Albert Lai, policy convener of an independent think tank, The Professional Commons asked “The problem with Singapore’s trains is already known, so why did MTRC continue with the procurement?”

“Why was the contract still awarded? Was sufficient checking done? The government needs to answer these questions. Was there negligence, or did someone try to lower standards to accommodate CSR Sifang?” Lai asked.

Collision in China

This aerial photo taken on July 24, 2011 shows rescue operations continuing on the wreckages of two high-speed trains that collided the night before in the town of Shuangyu, on the outskirts of Wenzhou in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
This aerial photo taken on July 24, 2011 shows rescue operations continuing on the wreckages of two high-speed trains that collided the night before in the town of Shuangyu, on the outskirts of Wenzhou in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Albert Lai said that CSR Sifang has more than 700 trains in mainland China, and this poses a safety concern: the train collision in the city of Wenzhou, which resulted in 40 deaths and 172 injuries in July 2011, involved the same manufacturer.

“China does not have independent investigative reporting. In other words, there could be many trains with problems, but simply because no one dares to report, these cases are swept under the carpet,” said Lai.

In recent years, China has exported a large number of high-speed trains to the rest of the world, and this poses a safety concern for other countries too, Lai added.

“For example, the United States has started using its CSR trains in Chicago, and some European countries have procured the trains,” he said.

Last month, MTR submitted a collision test report claiming that the body of the CRH380A train can withstand a collision speed of 25km/hour, with the risk minimised to an acceptable level.

However, Lai criticised the report as deceiving the Hong Kong people, as the train model CRH380A has yet to undergo the collision test under the EU standards.

According to current affairs analyst Lai Chak-fun, whether it is the train controversy or the tainted water scandal, the government must have been aware of these matters earlier; however, they procrastinate and only acknowledge them when things are exposed by the media.

Lai believes that the string of events will further affect Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s chances of re-election as well as his whole team.

Chronology of the made-in-China train controversy

May 2009: Singapore awarded the manufacturing contract for 22 C151A trains, worth about HK$2.1 billion, to a consortium consisting of Japanese company Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Qingdao CSR Sifang.

Dec 2011: Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) experienced serious malfunctions, and the affected train stopped operations for 2 days.

March 2012: Following its successful HK$1.74 billion bid, CSR Sifang was awarded the XLR contract to supply nine CRH380A trains.

2015: Singapore’s MRT operator, SMRT, began shipping defective C151A trains back to mainland China in batches for repair.

Jan 2015: The Transport and Housing Bureau received emails about quality problems with the trains and urged MTR to re-evaluate its supplier for new trains.

July 2015: MTR ordered 93 trains from CSR Sifang at a cost of HK$6 billion. This is the biggest order for trains in mainland China.

July 5, 2016: FactWire News Agency revealed that Singapore’s trains made by CSR Sifang had quality problems. Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung claimed that he was not aware of Singapore’s problem.

July 7, 2016: After FactWire released further information, Cheung acknowledged that his bureau had received anonymous email messages about the train cracks last year.

Sept 2016: Nine CRH380A high-speed trains are due for delivery to Hong Kong.

2018-2023: Ninety-three C151A trains are expected to be delivered to Hong Kong.

Translated by Benjamin Ng and Sulin. Edited by Sally Appert.

Lin Yi