Hong Kong protests: how has the MTR been affected?

Adele Berti 14 April 2020 (Last Updated April 15th, 2020 10:08)

Over the past few months, Hong Kong rioters have repeatedly targeted the city’s subway operator, the MTR. With the COVID-19 outbreak now predicted to cause a major drop in ridership, what does the future hold for Hong Kong's rail network?

Hong Kong protests: how has the MTR been affected?
In August 2019, the MTR was blamed for allowing the police to storm into a carriage at Prince Edward station. Credit: Studio Incendo (via Flickr).

Within less than a year, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR), has gone from breaking world records for punctuality and passenger appreciation to earning the nickname of ‘Communist Rail’, and now finds itself accused of acting under Beijing’s orders. Its state-of-the-art stations have repeatedly been targets of vandalism and arson, its reputation now hanging by a thread.

The degree of responsibility it has in allegedly impeding the demonstrations is largely unknown, and yet as pro-democracy riots continue to engulf the city of Hong Kong, which has been stranded in a deadlock for around eight months, protesters are certain the MTR’s recent actions speak louder than words.

This explains why attacks on some of its key stations have been fairly common over the past few months, causing the operator to eventually shut the whole network down in October for the first time since it opened 40 years ago.

As Hong Kong continues to revolt, the MTR is still picking up the pieces of the attacks it suffered. And although its involvement and responsibility for the political situation in Hong Kong remain officially unexplained, there is reason to believe the total damages go far beyond repairing the stations and picking up broken glass.

From enabling the protests to standing in their way

Protests officially kicked off in June as a result of the local government’s now-withdrawn extradition bill, which, if passed, would have allowed mainland China to claim the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong.

However, it wasn’t until three months later, in August 2019, that rioters turned their heads towards the MTR and its involvement. As the South China Morning Post reports, faced with accusations of facilitating the protests by increasing services – a move that the company claimed was to help commuters return to their homes – the MTR started closing down stations in proximity to rioting hotspots.

During this period, the company also allowed the riot police to storm into a carriage at Prince Edward station. The move caused outrage amid protesters and the general public as video footages showed officers attacking subway users seemingly irrespective of their involvement in the demonstrations.

“Protests officially kicked off in June as a result of the local government’s now-withdrawn extradition bill.”

This triggered the protesters’ first attacks to the network, mainly in the form of vandalism against ticket machines and glasses. Less than a month later, the situation had escalated beyond control.

In early October, the local administration decided to activate colonial-era emergency regulations that banned the use of masks at public gatherings, a decision that enraged campaigners and brought them down to march in the streets once again.

This, in turn, pushed the MTR to close down its entire train system for the first time in its 40-year history, leaving most of it out of order for three days.

According to Steve Tsang, director of the Chinese Institute of London’s SOAS University, rioters welcomed this move as a sign of the MTR’s opposition to them, and renamed it ‘Communist Rail’.

Despite the company claiming the closures were due to repairs, he says that the decision was nonetheless “kind of unusual”.

“When the MTR closed the network, it appeared to people protesting in Hong Kong that it was really an action to stop them from being able to have that capability to move from one location to the other very quickly, and that is something which local authorities were complaining about, as rioters were able to organise flash demonstrations all over town.”

Physical and collateral damages

As things stand, says Tsang, the MTR currently finds itself drained by additional expenses and a largely damaged network. “They now have a lot of very expensive equipment to be replaced,” he continues, “and they probably will have to pay for increased security, which previously wasn’t needed.”

Figures from late November 2019 have found extensive damages on a total 147 out of 162 MTR and Light Rail stops. Here, some 800 ticket machines, 1,800 turnstiles and 50 escalators were vandalised alongside surveillance cameras and rolling shutters.

The ongoing wave of discontent has also reportedly wrecked the city’s landmark rail link to the airport, which has since been operating limited services, as well about 70 carriages between heavy and light rail.

“The situation is very bad for the MTR, which is paying a very substantial price for what happened.”

Finally, ridership has witnessed a steep decline since the beginning of riots, with figures showing a 27% fall in November compared to the same time in 2018.

However, physical repairs make up for only a part of the MTR’s miseries, which are estimated to account for HK$1.6bn ($205m) in repair costs. In March, the company announced a 44.8% drop in profits to HK$4.98bn ($638.46) in 2019 compared to the previous year.

As Tsang puts it, “The MTR was one of the best-run underground railway systems in the world, and one of the best maintained and most efficient and tidy and unproblematic, and therefore extremely profitable.

“[As a result of the demonstrations,] the cost factor will increase and so will the risk of repeated vandalism, while they will also have to be prepared for how much damage the protests will bring to their reputation.”

Despite the disruption, Tsang concedes that a damaged reputation is unlikely to deter future and present citizens from using the MTR, especially once the wave of unrest is over. “The MTR is an essential service,” he continues. “People cannot avoid using the MTR in Hong Kong. But the situation is very bad for the MTR, which is paying a very substantial price for what happened.”

Should the MTR be blamed?

But is the MTR as guilty of supporting mainland China as protesters are saying? Only the companies involved – who are inevitably keeping quiet – seem to know the answer currently.

“Whether they are effectively responsible for their misfortunes or it is beyond their control, I think it depends on where you stand on the matter,” says Tsang. “Hong Kong is not China, the state does not have the kind of control over public companies in Hong Kong in the way that they do in China. The MTR did not have to follow orders from the government.”

“It almost doesn’t matter whether the company was acting under orders from the authorities.”

On the other hand, protesters are pointing to the fact that the local government could have indeed had a greater say in the matter than it seems to show. The Hong Kong administration is, in fact, the single largest shareholder within the MTR, owning a 75% stake in it.

In addition, BuzzFeed recently pointed to a risk cited in the company’s Initial Public Offering, which took place in 2000, when it said: “The government can exert significant influence on the company and could cause it to make decisions, modify the scope of its activities or impose new obligations on it that may not be in the best interest of the company or its other shareholders.”

These words may or may not have had a determining weight in the MTR’s actions, but according to Tsang, motifs ultimately have little relevance in this debate: “It almost doesn’t matter whether the company was acting under orders from the authorities or purely on commercial considerations, because it’s not being seen in that way by the local populations and as a result, they ended up vandalising it,” he says.

A standalone example in a series of rail attacks

The future of Hong Kong and its subway system may currently be hard to foresee, but a few things can be learned from the year just gone, during which global railways were often targeted for political motives.

London’s underground services took centre stage during October’s Extinction Rebellion protests, as activists climbed on top of train carriages in an attempt to stir the government’s attention to the climate change crisis.

During the same period, citizens of Chilean capital Santiago vandalised and set fire to several subway stations in a bid to contrast the central government’s proposed fare hikes and bring forward the country’s wider poverty and inequality issues.

“Protesters were able to attract attention before they vandalised the MTR.”

By extension, even Paris’ recent gilets jaunes and pension cuts-related demonstrations had considerable effects on the capital’s metro system, which has not been directly targeted but was left in a state of almost complete shutdown for as long as the protests took place.

As Tsang explains, these attacks were all driven by political motifs. However, whilst these protesters were meant to attract attention towards a specific issue, in the case of Hong Kong, “protesters were able to attract attention before they vandalised the MTR, and they vandalised it mainly because they thought the MTR was picking sides”.

If anything, attention on the MTR is something that protesters would have rather avoided: “If they could have it their way, I think they would much prefer the MTR to simply run a normal service,” he concludes. “It would be much more useful to them for the particular type of protest they want to run.”

The devastating impact of the coronavirus outbreak

A further aggravation of the MTR’s miseries has been the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which originated right at the heart of protesters’ number one enemy, mainland China.

Arguably one of the most devastating viruses to hit the world and global economy since the 2003 SARS outbreak, COVID-19 has at the time of writing spread to dozens of countries, so far claiming the lives of more than 3000 people.

“Fears of coronavirus’ spread have virtually turned the MTR into a ghost network.”

In the city of Hong Kong, where registered cases currently amount to 100, fears of its spread have virtually turned the MTR into a ghost network. Earlier in February, official figures from the company showed a year-on-year fall of 21% in ridership numbers during the month of January.

Unsurprisingly, the high-speed line that connects the city to China has been the most heavily impacted by the outbreak, with ridership plummeting from 1.7m in January 2019 to 1.05 this year. A severe drop in passenger numbers has also been recorded on the Airport Express and a number of other cross-border rail services.

According to Hong Kong Federation of Railway Trade Unions vice-chairman Tam Kin-chiu, the situation is only likely to continue in the nearest future, with estimates showing a further 40% fall in ridership since the Lunar New Year.

“Various factors have contributed to the severe impacts on MTR’s domestic and cross-boundary patronage,” the company said in a statement, explaining these included government arrangements to work from home, school closures and a drop in tourist arrivals. Having witnessed a particularly significant decrease during non-peak hours, the MTR added that it would adjust the frequency of its services so to still meet passenger demands while reducing unnecessary electricity consumption.