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Thursday, March 30, 2017, 22:53

EMSD assures escalators are 'safe'

By Shadow Li

EMSD assures escalators are 'safe'
Cheung Kim-ching, t he Chief Engineer of General Legislation Division of EMSD (Provided to China Daily)

The Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) on Thursday assured the public that it is safe to use escalators, saying the accident last weekend, when the city’s longest indoor escalator abruptly reversed while taking passengers up in Langham Place , Mong Kok, was "extremely rare."

The Chief Engineer of General Legislation Division of EMSD, Cheung Kim-ching, made the statement during an exclusive interview with China Daily.

He said two mishaps happening simultaneously and causing accidents was very unusual.

Considering Hong Kong’s dense population and many high-rises, the escalator accident rate caused by equipment failure is relatively low

An industry expert concurred with Cheung but urged the government to increase the frequency of functioning tests on escalators.

All driving chains on the problem escalator at Langham Place broke on last Saturday. At the same time, the escalator was unable to send out a signal to activate its auxiliary brake. It suddenly went into reverse.

Following the incident, a citywide inspection of 65 similar long escalators, with vertical height of more than 15 meters, began and will be completed early next week.

Cheung said long escalators, with more passengers, could pose greater threats to safety when mishaps occurred, creating an urgent need to check long escalators first. In fact, in September last year the department had already advised maintenance providers to install an auxiliary brake system on old escalators that did not have such systems.

Considering Hong Kong’s dense population and many high-rises, the escalator accident rate caused by equipment failure is relatively low. About 10,000 escalators run frequently in almost every shopping mall and office building.

EMSD records showed 1,624 incident reports were filed last year. However, only three of them were caused by equipment failure; the other 1,571 cases were caused by erratic passenger behavior. In the past five years, an average 4.4 cases of equipment failure were reported each year.

The EMSD is seeking the Langham Place escalator’s contractor for more information on routine inspections as suggested by the manufacturer. Cheung revealed that the preliminary investigation found metal fatigue may have been the prime cause of drive-chain fracture. The department is expected to finish the investigation and submit the report within two months.

It was reported that the escalator at Langham Place had been checked two days prior to the incident. But it is still unknown how the check was conducted.

Two technicians were arrested by police on suspicion of tampering with the auxiliary brake on Sunday following the incident. They were alleged to have changed the escalator setting when helping the EMSD investigate the incident.

The escalator incident, leaving 18 people injured, was the first such accident in the city, where two mishaps occurred at the same time causing system failure, according to Cheung.

Technician shortage could compromise inspections

According to Tse King-wa, chairman of the General Union of Lift and Escalator Employees, frontline technicians are constrained by manpower shortages and will have up to two hours to inspect limited parts of an escalator, as specified in a list provided by the escalator maintenance company.

Under the current regulation, escalator contractors are required to make monthly maintenance checks, which mostly comprise greasing up the main components of the escalator, and a comprehensive routine check every six months. In that routine check, the authority required testing of the auxiliary brake and main parts of the escalators, Electrical and Mechanical Services Department’s Chief Engineer of General Legislation Division Cheung Kim-ching said.

But Tse stressed that tests should be conducted more often to see whether the escalator could function normally, or check major fittings such as driving chains and the motor.

In the Langham Place case, it is still unknown why the system failed to send a signal to activate the auxiliary brake last Saturday. And that kind of system failure would usually have been found during a functioning test, Tse explained.

Tse also suggested the government stipulate that two technicians should be dispatched to make the functioning test as it was impossible for one technician to conduct such checks. That was why sometimes, if one man was sent, he might just ensure all the parts were in place, without running tests to see whether it worked, Tse added.

Manpower in the industry is tight with the average age of frontline technicians reaching 50.

But Cheung said the industry had sufficient manpower to provide safety checks. Still, the department was working on attracting new blood into the industry by launching a subsidized five-year training plan, with HK$600 million to train more than 1,000 technicians.

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