Hong Kong's pride, the Mass Transit Railway system, is struggling through the worst year in its 40-year history. The system that has earned worldwide plaudits for its efficiency finds itself at the center of the city's current political storm. Today, the MTR is grasping for strategies to weather the storm and keep the standard of services for the city's commuters. It's been called the biggest challenge ever faced by the corporation.
"MTR Corp is struggling to strike a balance between safety and service delivery," a senior MTR manager who refused to be named told China Daily.
The manager recalled that at 4 am on Oct 5, when rioters finally ended their rampage hours after the city's anti-mask law came into effect, staff members at different stations were called out to inspect the stations and make arrangements for repairs. The city continued to reel amid the citywide chaos that saw hundreds of shops and banks vandalized, in addition to many metro stations.
The first three stations the manager inspected had sustained fire damage, smashed turnstiles and ticket vending machines, and surfaces defaced by graffiti. The damage was unprecedented and the manager had to report that repairs could not be completed early in the morning.
Over the past two months, Hong Kong's metro system has been attacked by violent mobs almost every week. The system had managed to complete repairs and clean-up in time for the resumption of services at 6 am.
On Oct 5, however, the MTR was down for the count. All lines and stations had to be closed all day — more than 80 of 93 stations had been damaged.
It wasn't until Oct 11 that the full system was back in operation. Tseung Kwan O Station, the last to finish repairs, provided only limited services.
By the time the station reopened, only four of 26 turnstiles, one of five ticket machines, and four of seven escalators were operational, according to the MTR's chief of operations, Sammy Wong Kwan-wai.
Some glass doors on platforms that had been smashed were patched with aluminum boards. The rail operator also cleared the debris created by the rampage which had been thrown onto the rail tracks.
Two months earlier, on Aug 5, MTR train services were paralyzed when anti-government protesters launched a "non-cooperation movement". Masked protesters pressed emergency buttons on the carriages, and blocked train doors from closing during rush hours. Eight lines had to suspend services.
Disputes erupted at some stations. Protesters began smashing turnstiles and ticketing machines, wrecked surveillance cameras and firefighting equipment at the stations. MTR staff were harassed and intimidated.
The city felt another shock on Sept 8, when protesters started a fire at an exit of Central Station on Hong Kong Island. Before long, arson became a standard tactic among rioting protesters. When stations were closed and shuttered, protesters smashed windows at the exits and tossed gasoline bombs inside.
Once a fixture at a metro station or a train is damaged, staff have to inspect all facilities, looking out for damage to avoid mishaps.
The uncertainties arising from attacks result in "tons of work", the manager said.
Overtime shifts new 'norm'
Due to constant damage to railway facilities, a dwindling number of spare parts for repairs made the problem increasingly acute, according to Adi Lau Tin-shing, operations director of MTR.
Various facilities, including 1,200 turnstiles, 800 ticketing machines, 900 CCTV cameras, and 50 escalators, have been damaged, causing unbudgeted costs of up to HK$10 million ($1.47 million) for reparations.
Some spare parts have been exhausted and replacement parts have had to be ordered overseas. They will not arrive in Hong Kong until November, said Lau.
Before that, the company mobilized staff to deal with the crisis. For example, more employees were added to help recharge the metro card or sell tickets before the ticket machines were fixed.
At damaged turnstiles, MTR staff hold sensors for passengers to tap their transport cards, while computer screens show the balance of the cards.
The temporary replacement was a brainchild of the engineering team, said the manager. "No one had ever planned for, 'what if all our turnstiles were out of order'," the manager added.
For the past two months, working overtime and sometimes overnight has been the norm for MTR employees. Most are accustomed to working in shifts during the 18 hours of operations. Now, once a metro station becomes damaged during protests, which frequently occurred during weekends, some staff remain on duty to clean up and repair damages, before the service begins again at 6 am.
These efforts ensured that most MTR services are restored in time for the some 5 million passengers who use MTR services each day.
Special jobs seconded
Some services had to make way. For example, MTR staff who specialize in providing services to the disabled or other people in need, were temporarily seconded to other jobs.
Some barrier-free facilities that have been damaged still await repairs.
Protesters smashed the only lift at Yau Ma Tei Station. It is located adjacent to Kwong Wah Hospital, a major public hospital in southern Kowloon. As a result, elderly patients of the hospital, as well as the disabled and passengers accompanied by heavy luggage or prams, are forced to take the stairs.
Every single part has its purpose in this vast and complex railway system, the manager said. "Each missing element could create a trail of problems."
The pressure of working overtime seems a small inconvenience when considered alongside the difficulties of enforcing regulations while violent protesters are intent on creating disruption, the manager said.
It never was a "mission impossible" for MTR staff to stop people from stealing rides, until masses of protesters did so recently. Mobs were seen jumping over turnstiles without paying, to avoid being identified if they use their Octopus cards.
MTR staff complained that when they tried to apprehend fare jumpers, a crowd would form hurling abuse at staff members for "obstructing the demonstrations".
Nothing like this has ever happened before, the manager said. The person recalled transport in the city becoming obstructed, in 2005, when South Korean farmers sparked riots, surrounding the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. Back then, the rioters were condemned by the public in general, and staff had little difficulty maintaining order.
Stealing rides poses a serious concern for the city's public transport system, not so much financially, but for the corrupting influence on social morality, the staff member said.
The individual noted that the MTR's high efficiency is based on mutual trust and a high degree of self-discipline among Hong Kong people.
"Once that trust is broken, does MTR need other means to discipline its passengers? Will security checks be necessary one day?" the staff member asked.
A sharp drop in MTR's revenue is likely to result from decreased passenger traffic during recent months. MTR reported a decline of 7.5 percent year-on-year in passenger traffic in August.
The Airport Express that links Hong Kong International Airport and the city's principal urban areas saw a drop of 10 percent in passenger traffic, presumably due to direct disruptions of the airport by protesters on Aug 12 and 13.
The Hong Kong West Kowloon high-speed rail station, constructed by MTR and commissioned late last year, carried 1.14 million passengers in August, down nearly 30 percent from July.
Ridership has been affected by a 40 percent drop in tourist arrivals in the city over the past month alone. In the meantime, the people of Hong Kong are cutting back on shopping and leisure dining, because of frequent disruptions caused by protests, including violent clashes across the city.