- Radical protesters have trashed and set fire to stations, accusing the rail operator of siding with police over recent unrest
Hong Kong's rail operator will not put district council election posters in its trains or stations for the first time in its 40-year history, citing potential safety risks amid months of protests in which some residents have turned their ire on the railways.
The MTR Corporation, which on Thursday also announced plans to reimburse passengers affected by recent closures, said the advertisements "may give rise to political controversies and conflicts".
Hong Kong has been gripped by more than four months of anti-government unrest. Recently, radical protesters have vandalised and set fires at railway stations, believing that the MTR Corp sided with police during clearance operations.
On October 5 when the government enacted a ban on wearing facial coverings during demonstrations, the MTR Corp unprecedentedly suspended all train services for one day. Since resuming the services the next day, it has cut its daily operating hours to allow extra time for repairs.
In a statement released on Thursday, the MTR Corp announced it would decline all advertisement placement applications for the November district council elections across its entire network, including heavy rail, the Airport Express, light rail and West Kowloon station. It added that it would remove materials already posted and refund affected clients.
"The corporation has taken into consideration that the content of election advertisements may give rise to political controversies and conflicts in the railway system which may pose potential risks to the safety of passengers, MTR staff and the railway network," the statement read.
It noted the company's advertising agencies had received "a number of applications" for placements of adverts with election content before the closure of the nomination period.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the rail giant clearly wanted to avoid being dragged into another political row, but added that the impact on the November election would be minimal.
"District council election candidates tend not to put campaign advertisements on MTR billboards as they have a small budget. Pan-democrats have an extra reason not to do that, since the company is loathed by pro-democracy protesters," he said.
MTR rolls out new gates at station exits to prevent further vandalism
Danny Siu Wai-chung, standing in Southern district for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, hoped the move could depoliticise the MTR.
"Residents may feel safer travelling on trains if the MTR stations are free of political and electoral materials, as there is a lower risk of the billboards getting trashed," he said, adding that he had not put any advertisements on the network himself.
"District council elections are fought on livelihood issues in smaller constituencies. It's more effective getting your message across and winning support by being out and about and greeting voters on the street."
The months of protests were sparked by opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, which would have allowed transfers of suspects to mainland China, among other places, for trial. But the protests have since morphed into a full-fledged anti-government movement, focusing on alleged police brutality and a lack of democracy.
In a separate statement, the MTR Corp said it would give two $50 (US$6.40) MTR shops vouchers to holders of the October 2019 Monthly Pass Extra, a card that gets users unlimited travel on certain routes and discounts on others.
Holders of MTR City Saver, which costs $435 for 40 single journeys in 40 days, can apply to extend the validity of the remaining trips on their card for another 40 days, if they have been affected by recent disruption.
The MTR Corp said "recent unlawful acts of malicious vandalism and arson by rioters at MTR stations have seriously affected MTR service", and the special ticketing arrangements would "minimise the impact" on the special ticket holders.
As of October 7, 85 out of 94 heavy rail stations and 53 of 68 light rail stations had been damaged by protesters, including attacks on more than 1,200 turnstiles, 800 ticketing machines and add-value machines, 900 CCTV cameras, 40 lifts and 70 sets of roller shutters.
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