Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 10:28
MTR boss faces tough grilling from lawmakers
By Kahon chan in Hong Kong

MTR Corporation (MTRC) Chief Executive Officer Jay Walder refused to respond to legislators’ non-partisan calls on Monday for his resignation.

He explained that the corporation’s management decisions were not the cause of recent delays with the express rail project and he would only take responsibility for “bad decisions” made in regard to the MTRC’s communications strategy.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, alongside Walder and management from the MTRC, also offered a solemn apology in the first round of grilling by the railway subcommittee of the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Monday.

Walder took the most heat from both pro-establishment and opposition legislators largely due to a phone call he made to Cheung on Nov 21, 2013, to stop officials from highlighting the potential of a service launch “beyond 2015” in a progress briefing for the LegCo.

Legislators at Monday’s meeting were critical of Walder for undermining the rail operator’s corporate integrity and putting the secretary in a difficult position following a phone conversation in November. But Walder defended the MTRC’s effort to resolve these problems.

“Our belief is that all efforts should have been made to address problems with the construction project before accepting that it would be delayed,” Walder explained. He even praised the projects team’s efforts in trying to deal with the delays.

But it has taken five months for his team to accept that it was only realistic to launch the rail service by the end of 2017. The formal announcement was made in mid April — almost a year after the first press report speculated about a year-long delay for the rail link.

Walder admitted poor decisions had been made in regard to the MTRC’s communications strategy. But he told LegCo he had repeatedly stressed the complexity of the express rail link project and denied any “integrity issues” on his part.

Having assumed his current role in January 2012, Walder’s contract will expire next year. He has run mass transit systems in London and New York.

In contrary to MTR’s defiant stance, Anthony Cheung apologized to the LegCo and the public for the government’s misjudgments and mishandling of the express rail progress. But he reiterated that there had been no attempt to cover up the delays.

The government had planned to report the possibility of a delay to LegCo in November. But it then agreed to play down its doubts following an exchange with the MTRC. Executive Councilor and lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said Cheung had failed to seek advice from political colleagues.

But Joseph Lai Yee-tak, permanent secretary for transport and housing (transport), said the MTRC was given the benefit of the doubt in “good faith”. This was because the corporation had abundant information on the project not accessible to the government. 

Cheung promised to increase monitoring of the MTRC both as a regulator and a major shareholder of the rail operator. Plans will be released later to improve the MTRC governance, he added.