Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Is Sorry Enough?

The architectural designs for the Express Rail Link station in West Kowloon
New Yorker Jay Walder was probably hoping for an easy ride when he took the job as MTR Chief Executive.

His last job was at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the transportation agency that runs the New York subway. He had to battle a $800 million budget deficit and improve the trains.

Before that Walder was in London trying to work on reliability of service and improve the state of the stations.

But here in Hong Kong, the punctuality of the MTR trains is well over 90 percent, stations are clean for the most part, give or take a few mainland children urinating in the carriages and train delays that aren't full communicated to commuters...

However Walder and MTR chairman Raymond Chien Kuo-fung, project director Chew Tai-chong and Transport Minister professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung are in the hot seat these days.

Last week the government discovered that there will be a two-year delay on constructing the high-speed cross-border railway to Guangzhou, and now it has come out that Cheung knew about it, but didn't tell the government because Walder called him last November requesting him not to announce the delay.

MTR CEO Jay Walder published an apology today
Cheung gave a public apology on Sunday saying, "I should have told lawmakers... back" on November 22, Cheung said at a meeting of the Legco railways subcommittee. "I apologize to Legco and members of the public. I am willing to bear the criticism".

But when asked to resign, Cheung only said he was remorseful.

People are also calling for Walder to step down, but he's avoided the issue as well.

Today he and Chien took out a full page ad in the newspaper apologizing about the delay in construction. Walder's statement reads in part:

First, I want to apologize. We did not do a good job in communicating with you or with the public about XRL [Express Rail Link]. There are no excuses. We understand our responsibilities for this public project and we let you down. We should have been clearer -- not only about the challenges but also about the considerable progress that has been made.

For this meeting, we have submitted to you a full and honest account of all the events that took place up to April 15th, the day we announced that due to insurmountable challenges, the Express Rail Link opening date regrettably had to be changed to 2017.

Equally important, our report puts forth a clear plan to take this project forward for operation in 2017. It's realistic and achievable. It's a plan that all of us at MTR and our contractors stand behind.

Members have asked why we didn't tell you earlier about the implications of the delays we were experiencing. In hindsight, that's what we should have done.

Secretary for Transport Anthony Leung is in hot water too
Our belief is that all efforts should be made to address problems with a construction project before accepting that it will be delayed. I must say that I have worked in the rail industry for many years, and I have worked with many dedicated people. But I have never seen the strength of commitment and conviction that I see here at MTR to deliver projects on time and on budget.

And it was in this spirit that we approached government with a plan to provide full passenger service and essential facilities in 2015, allowing time after passenger service had started to complete the non-essential features of the project. While they had their doubts, I have to thank the Secretary [Cheung] and his team for giving us the time to try to do it.

We tried hard. We explored every possible solution and every possible alternative to achieve this deadline. Unfortunately, the obstacles were just too great and it became clear in my meeting with the team in April that 2015 was out of reach. Our imperative then was to tell everyone as soon as possible and I immediately called the MTR Chairman and the Secretary for Transport and Housing.

We didn't want to let the public down and, regrettably, it led us to wait too long in communicating. As CEO, I take responsibility for that in the same way that I take responsibility for everything that happens in the Corporation.

So in the best interests of transparency, why did Walder tell Cheung not to tell Legco? He does not say. And why did they wait so long to tell us what was going on?

Hong Kong prides itself on projects being completed in a timely manner. Did Walder think, because of his experiences in New York and London, that a two-year delay would be no big deal here?

The government is now asking for legal advice on if the MTR should pay for the extra costs incurred for the two-year delay. Doesn't that mean those costs will be shouldered on us, the passengers?

In any event, one has to wonder how much longer Walder, Cheung and Chien will last in their positions.

The gracious thing to do would be to admit wrong and resign. When Walder accepted the MTR job, he resigned from the MTA suddenly after over two years into a six-year contract. It shocked everyone in New York, though the transit worker union was pleased to see him leave.

But with Walder now making almost double his salary back in the Big Apple, he probably wants to hold onto this position as long as possible...

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