Saving Our Bacon

When the streets are clear again, and the dust has finished settling, no doubt our community will spend many months – even years – debating the rights and wrongs, the ins and outs, of Occupy Central.

Who knows, the academics may even turn study of it into a degree programme. Perhaps yellow umbrellas will be a requirement at the graduation ceremonies.

The arguments about the long term implications will rumble on in newspaper columns and on talk shows until complete boredom sets in (if it hasn’t already).

But one conclusion I think we can all agree on right now is that the MTR has saved Hong Kong’s bacon. With so many main traffic arteries blocked, alternative routes were simply overloaded and commuters were forced to consider fallback options and workarounds. And far and away the most popular was our very own underground rail system.

Can’t get a taxi to that important meeting in Central? Hop on the train. It’s crowded but service frequency has been stepped up, you will get on, and you will get there in time. Need to cross the harbour in a hurry? School bus can’t get through? For nearly every problem there was a rail solution.

The Corporation has been under the cosh quite a lot recently, not altogether fairly in some cases and to some extent. For example I don’t think we have yet had anything like the full story about the delays and cost overruns of the Express Rail link to Guangzhou. No doubt the expert panel chaired by Mr Justice Hartmann will get us answers to some key questions such as why the terminus is in West Kowloon instead of somewhere more logical such as the New Territories, who set such an aggressive target date for completion (and whether there was political pressure to do so) and who decided not to carry out thorough site investigation before works began.

Even responsibility for the delays on the four bread and butter extensions to the existing network may not rest solely at the MTRC door. Why did all four have to be handled in parallel? Was it not possible to prioritise the projects so that the load on management was more reasonable? Or would that have meant making some (politically) tough decisions.

But on its main business – operating the existing network – the MTR people have done an outstanding job these past two months to the extent that even our perennial grumblers have gone quiet.

Even though I am praising the Corporation, there are lessons here for the senior management as well and I hope they are taking them on board. First, remember the old adage and stick to your knitting. Your number one priority is managing well what we already have and you should focus on that. No shortcuts on maintenance, for example. And buy quality components, not necessarily the cheapest.

Secondly, when the government gives you extra things to do, tell them honestly what your project management capacity is and force them to prioritise. Don’t just take the easy way out by agreeing to do everything at once.

And finally, take a hard look at some of these out of town projects. The commuters in London have my sympathy, but your number one job is in our town.