- Airport Express line records biggest drop in customers, its figures for the month down 43 per cent year on year
- Former rail boss warns of profits hit for rail operator, whose stations have been repeatedly attacked by radical activists
Hong Kong's embattled rail operator continued to shed customers in October, with ridership figures tumbling as metro stations closed early for most of the month in the face of political unrest and vandalism by radical protesters.
According to latest figures from the MTR Corporation, domestic ridership was just over 108 million for October, down 25.5 per cent on October last year and a new low since April 2012.
Former rail boss Michael Tien Puk-sun predicted the figures could signal a big drop in profits for the year at the majority-government-owned company.
The Airport Express recorded the biggest drop in customer numbers, its patronage figures for the month plunging by 43 per cent year on year to 916,000.
The high-speed rail link to Guangzhou was the second-hardest hit, traveller numbers tumbling 35 per cent from a year ago, to 1.06 million. But that figure was 14 per cent up on September's 936,000, the lowest monthly figure since the link's debut a year ago.
The downward trend was also evident on other cross-border MTR services, passenger numbers for October falling 26 per cent to 7.18 million from a year ago.
The grim figures came amid escalating protest woes for the MTR Corp, which in late August became a target of radical protesters, who accuse it of bowing to Beijing and colluding with police. Angry protesters have trashed its stations, set fire to and thrown petrol bombs at entrances, spray-painted graffiti on walls, and hurled objects onto tracks.
It has also closed stations when protests are happening, or are scheduled to happen, nearby.
'Repairs of University station will be similar to rebuilding it entirely'
On October 5 when the government's mask ban took effect, rampaging mobs forced a shutdown of the entire network for the first time in its 40-year history. For almost the entire month of October, the rail giant closed its stations early each day, saying that was to allow time to fix damaged facilities.
Lawmaker Tien, also former chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, said he predicted the MTR Corp would suffer a big drop in net profits this year, but he was still positive about its long-term development.
"Actually people treat the MTR as an estate firm instead of a transport operator as its profits mainly derive from its property business," he said.
He pointed out that the government was likely to grant the MTR Corp development rights, instead of operation rights, on future rail projects such as the Tuen Mun South extension, so the rail operator was guaranteed to be profitable in the long run.
The MTR services have become very unpredictable and commuters have started to rely on other modes of public transport, such as bus or ferryQuentin Cheng, Public Transport Research Team
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for the Public Transport Research Team, a commuter concern group, said the sharp fall in the overall ridership was expected as the rail company had to close train services early for almost all of October, a move he called a "de facto curfew" on the city to discourage protesters.
"This is expected as the MTR services have become very unpredictable and commuters have started to rely on other modes of public transport, such as bus or ferry. We've seen other transport operators, such as those of buses and minibuses, have been working hard to provide services for passengers," he said.
He also said the drastic plunge in patronage on the Airport Express came as no surprise as " apart from the sharp drop in visitors to the city " the rail service often skipped Kowloon and Tsing Yi stations at night and during weekends. Check-in services at Kowloon station were also suspended on many occasions.
"People living in those areas and wanting to go to the airport will choose to take public buses to the airport," he said.
As of October 29, radical protesters had extensively damaged 85 of 94 MTR stations and 60 of 68 light-rail stops, setting fires, smashing equipment and ripping out fixtures.
More than 1,600 turnstiles, 960 ticketing and add-value machines, 1,100 surveillance cameras, 125 lifts and escalators, 1,060 glass panel walls and 130 sets of roller shutters were vandalised.
In the latest development, the MTR Corp said damage to University station last week was so severe that it would require works on a scale similar to rebuilding the whole station.
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