(A reader’s reply is shown at the end of the article.)
I’m a usual Hong Kong guy. I visited Singapore twice, last time in June. I took the East-West Line from Changi to Buona Vista, and changed bus to NUS. A smooth journey, and found that Redhill station and the old-style Ngau Tau Kok station of Hong Kong MTR.
I joined a summer course in NUS. When I introduced myself, I mentioned the SMRT is better than MTR. An SG classmate replied that Hong Kong MTR is better in many aspects.
Perhaps that’s because I haven’t suffered from disruptions with SMRT, but I had those experiences in HK.
Then I knew SMRT service broke down during evening rush hour last Tuesday. The breakdown was in large scale because it happened in the major East-West Line and North-South Line. Around 250,000 commuters were affected. My facebook page was full of complaints from SG friends and news reports from SG online media, up until now.
Gradually, I saw some SG netizens and articles compare SMRT and MTR.
Among many Hong Kongers, Singapore has a good reputation for its cleanliness, for having an effective government, for its state housing policy.
This time, I see many SG netizens appreciate the HK railway, almost one-sided.
While I feel little bit happy :), some of the reasons SG netizens raise are not 100% true.
First of all, the MTR breaks down more frequently in these few years. Passengers complain about the MTR for more accidents, and confusing announcements after a disruption occurs. The grumble doubles with annual price hike. All the fare concessions are money-spinning exercises.
There is an experiment by a tech geek siuying, listing out all minor and major disruptions from MTR during late 2012 and early 2014. (http://mtrdelay.reality.hk/)
Some people suggest that the more frequent breakdown is due to aging, while some suggest the train service has been overloaded and the hardwares have been fatigue.
Second, it is criticized that MTR gains huge profit from residential and business property development along various stations.
This highlights its conflicting role: a public transport which should care for the public interest, or a listed company-cum-profit-making property developer. The government holds MTR with more than 70% stake, but the transport giant is also a listed company.
Also, more and more people do not satisfy with the government’s railway-first policy. With state’s sponsor, the railway has become and said as backbone of transport mode. Bus, mini-bus, taxi, and tram (the locals and tourists call it ding-ding) are only secondary that supports railway. Therefore, the competitiveness of bus against MTR has been weakening. This situation has been more serious when MTR Corporation merged with the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) in 2007. Whenever new railway lines are open, bus services will be cut.
A more worrying prospect is the over-budget of new lines. Like SG, HK is expanding its rail network. Although I expect the five new lines will delay, and delay, and delay, I can’t accept the extent of over-budget. Sorry that I’ve got no time to update the figure. Last year the MTR measured that an extra 22.8 billion HKD (3.97 billion SGD) is needed to top-up the construction cost of four of the five new lines.
For the construction of Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed railway, the latest cost estimate reached 85.3 billion HKD, up from 66.9 billion HKD in its 2010 proposal (http://tinyurl.com/oq659k7), and more to be expected. (Mind you, the railway is only 26 km long, so the per km cost is 3.28 billion HKD, or 570 million SGD!)
The CEO was resigned facing public pressure in July 2014.
The big question is, MTR is completing a huge project commissioned by the government. With the increasing over-budget, who should shoulder the extra cost and political responsibility? (http://tinyurl.com/pmxh32s) Obviously, the corporate governance of MTR is at risk.
Having said that, MTR is a city icon. Many HK friends tell me, they, and even their foreigner friends, regard the MTR as a world-class railway, for the following points:
For me, an additional merit is the use of Chinese and English font, much better than that in the HK airport.
(Of course, despite the mounting criticisms, the nice facilities are very much supported by the mature railway-and-property financial model, in particular the profit partly offset the expenditure. See this beautiful PowerPoint: http://tinyurl.com/oyuqbdo)
Source: Apple Daily
And, I find three points that MRT is better than MTR, and MRT users may not recognize.
One is the perfect integration of train and bus service. In Singapore, fares are based on distance, passengers can make transfers without additional costs. In Hong Kong, except for free feeder bus in the New Territories, or little amount of concessions for transfer for some minibus routes, the train fare system is independent of other transport mode. This makes the whole journey more expensive if it involves two or more transport modes.
Second, the fare of MRT to the airport is similar to other adjacent stations, and the airport station is just a branch of the East West Line. Travellers are easy to take the train from the airport to hotels and tourist spots, and employees are easy to travel to the airport. In Hong Kong, the Airport Express has a separate and premium fare system. The line is paralleled for most of its length by the locally-used Tung Chung Line. This reduces the ability of the Tung Chung Line to increase frequency.
I must mention the more silent environment inside SMRT trains. In MTR, some passengers speak loudly or play online games without muting the sounds, which disturb others. Also, the train provides TV programmes and is quite noisy.
My article doesn’t intend to defend SMRT, but more to clarify some misunderstandings about MTR. With rail system aging, we expect service breakdown more often. What we hope is more transparent information and alternative transport modes when an accident occurs, and enjoy safe journeys as soon as possible.
Note: After the article posted, I asked an SG friend for feedback, here is his reply. And thank you for his comments:
About SMRT’s integrated service:
But if you have not realised that’s because for certain places in Singapore you have to change your mode of tran(s)portation three times to reach and would take four times longer than you would have if you driven. The low income earners will literally starve if they have to pay such a high fee
About the airport railway in SG and HK:
Well, that a likely a case esp if the airport is situated on a different piece of land isn’t it?
About the extent of noise between MTR and MRT trains:
Frankly, it varies from person to person, the some passengers you might be referring to are also in Singapore. TV programmes we had earlier but ended because of technical difficulties.
blogging urban change since 2005
I Am Sze Ming Lee
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