In 2009, Melburnians were promised a rail network that would be akin to that of Hong Kong’s — reliable, on time, and one that could keep up with a rapidly growing population.
- Hong Kong’s subway operator, MTR, has been criticised by pro-democracy protesters
- It is a part of Australian franchises that run rail services in Sydney and Melbourne
- Pro-democracy advocates say Australia should reconsider its links to MTR
That was because Hong Kong’s majority state-owned Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation was to take over Melbourne’s much-criticised private operator, Connex.
MTR has a reputation as a world-leader in rail reliability and financial management, and repeatedly boasts of its 99.9 per cent punctuality rate.
This has prompted envy among governments around the globe, some of which have sought to replicate MTR’s magic by either bringing the Corporation in to run rail services in full, or via franchises.
However in recent months, MTR’s efficient, corporate sheen has literally and figuratively come under fire from Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters, who blame the operator for stifling their freedom of movement amid the city’s mass pro-democracy protests.
This has plunged MTR into an unprecedented crisis, which has seen its assets, including carriages and tracks, vandalised by protesters across the city.
With criticism piling up, it remains unclear if the beleaguered MTR can bounce back and whether it can stop disquiet about the company spreading to the services it’s linked to overseas, including those in Sydney and Melbourne.
But to understand how perceptions of the service swiftly derailed at home, you need to first understand MTR’s links to the Hong Kong Government and the role it played at the start of the protest movement.
‘MTR has been complicit in stopping protests’
The relationship between MTR and the Hong Kong Government, which retains a 75 per cent stake in the company, has become a focal point for anti-government protesters who are demonstrating against the city’s eroding freedoms under Chinese rule.
During the first weeks of the protest movement, it was the MTR that zipped demonstrators around the city as part of the protesters’ “be water” strategy, where they would quickly disperse and reappear in other places in order to keep police on their toes.
But according to activist Jane Poon, a spokeswoman for Melbourne-based community organisation Australia-Hong Kong Link, this all changed after clashes on August 31.
“On that night police laid siege to Prince Edward Station, violently assaulting protesters, bystanders and ordinary passengers inside the station and train carriages indiscriminately,” Ms Poon told the ABC.
“MTR shut down the station during and after the attack, baring medics and first aiders from entering the station.
“The company sealed off the station for two days afterwards, despite only minor damage to the station during the siege.”
Ms Poon said Australia-Hong Kong Link members had reached a “consensus” on MTR after its opaque handling of the alleged police attack, suspension of services and decision to close train stations.
“MTR has been complicit in stopping pro-democracy protests and assisting the Government’s crackdown,” she said.
In a press release published a week after the incident, MTR said extra time was required to repair damage to Prince Edward Station.
But this has not extinguished protester cynicism, and they have continued to press MTR to release CCTV footage from the night to reveal what actually happened.
So far, the company has only released stills from CCTV vision showing medics evacuating the injured.
None of the released stills show scuffles between protesters and police; MTR attributed the missing vision to camera vandalism.
Ms Poon said while MTR initially “operated in an apolitical manner” when the protests first erupted, she believed its stance changed after facing criticism from Chinese state media outlets which have at times accused the service of assisting “rioters”.
In response to the claims about its allegiance, MTR told the ABC train services were reduced after the August 31 incident due to damage inflicted by “rioters”, adding that allegations that it was deliberately closing stations were “totally unfounded”.
“In order to protect the safety of passengers and staff amid the increasing threats posed by escalating vandalism and violent acts, we have to conduct risk assessment and take suitable measures including station closures and any necessary train service regulations in response to the changing situation,” it said in a statement.
The statement also noted that various threats, including arson and petrol bombs attacks, had been made against MTR’s tracks, trains and facilities.
How vulnerable are Australian services to MTR’s woes?
In Victoria, Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) operates the city’s train service, while in New South Wales, Metro Trains Sydney (MTS) — or Sydney Metro Northwest — runs the city’s recently-completed automated train line between Tallawong and Chatswood.
While the two services sound similar, they are actually two separate consortiums, of which MTR has a 60 per cent stake in each.
Metro Trains Australia (MTA) — the parent company of MTM and sibling to MTS — told the ABC there were “no plans at this time” to make contingency arrangements in response to a possible deterioration in Hong Kong’s political or economic situation.
“MTA has been closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and is particularly aware of the safety of our customers and employees,” Leah Waymark, MTA’s CEO, told the ABC.
“We will continue to assess what we are seeing in Hong Kong.”
John Stone, a lecturer in transport planning at the Melbourne School of Design, told the ABC that any deterioration in Hong Kong’s political situation should not be a concern for Australian rail operators linked to MTR.
“The important thing to remember is that we haven’t given ownership of the track or rolling stock [trains] to a private company — all of those things remain in state hands,” he said referring to Melbourne’s setup.
“All we’ve done is give MTR, through MTM, the right to operate the services, manage staff and [carry out] maintenance.”
Australian commuters asked to ‘carefully reconsider’ MTR
Ms Poon said it was Australia-Hong Kong Link’s view that both “the NSW and Victorian Governments should carefully reconsider the relationship with MTR as a contractor”.
“Given the tragic events that are unfolding in Hong Kong and the willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to dictate and control state-owned corporations to advance its political agenda, we question whether it is wise for the two state governments to allow a company heavily under the influence of the CCP to manage the states’ most vital infrastructures,” she said.
Asked about the concerns, a Victorian Government spokesperson told the ABC its focus was to “work with Metro Trains Melbourne to deliver the best service for Melbourne passengers”.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance’s spokesperson said the NSW Government “remains confident the Northwest Rapid Transit consortium, of which MTR is a member, has the capacity to perform its contractual obligations to Sydney Metro”.
Meanwhile, MTR told the ABC Hong Kong’s ongoing “situation” would have “no impact” on its obligations overseas.
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