Minibus services from the residential district of Whampoa in Hong Kong will stop for good from Sunday, falling victim to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The minibus operator, Chit Fai Motors Co. Ltd, had announced on Thursday afternoon that it would terminate from Friday four minibus routes from Whampoa Garden to Kowloon Tong and Tsim Sha Tsui. But, it later agreed to prolong the services till Saturday after negotiations with the Transport Department.
"The company will stop operating Kowloon minibus routes No 2, 2A, 6 and 6X from April 10, 2020," it had announced in a Facebook post on Thursday afternoon.
"We have contacted the Labour Relations Division from the Labour Department to assist us with the dismissal of all drivers and other employees."
A spokeswoman from the Transport Department said it had received a letter from Chit Fai Motors on Thursday about the termination and met with its representatives for negotiation.
She said the company promised to maintain the services of minibus routes No 2 and No 6 from Whampoa Garden to Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong and to Hankow Road in Tsim Sha Tsui till April 11, with buses running every 20 minutes between 8am and 8pm.
Meanwhile, the department said it had strengthened the frequency of buses to Tsim Sha Tsui and was in talks with other operators to run the minibus routes No 2 and 2A temporarily.
"The department will monitor the needs of the passengers in the area closely, and coordinate and strengthen all kinds of public transport services when needed," she said.
Chit Fai Motors, which has run minibuses on the routes for around 40 years, said the pandemic worsened the company's financial conditions. The company had been in bad shape since 2017 after new MTR stations, including the Whampoa station, opened on the Kwun Tong Line.
"We can imagine the impact of our decision on the passengers, but the reality doesn't allow us to extend the services. It's hard to find a feasible way to continue the operation," the post said, adding that the government's salary subsidies announced on Wednesday would not help the situation.
The Facebook post drew around 100 comments with many expressing pity on the termination.
"Thank you. Goodbye. The minibus company with memories of my secondary school days," a user wrote. "There won't be any minibuses that would take us from Whampoa to Tsim Sha Tsui directly," another person wrote.
In a letter to its employees on Thursday, the company said it recorded HK$2 million in losses in a few months since the virus outbreak amid a sharp drop in passenger numbers. The company cut several shifts and reduced the numbers of vehicles in service to stay afloat, but in vain.
Seeking help from the Labour Department, the company said it would not be able to pay the dismissal fees due to the poor financial conditions.
Kwan Ka-lun, district councillor of Kowloon City, said the four minibus lines served a very important purpose before the opening of the MTR station in Whampoa.
"As there are more options these days, fewer people take minibuses. But some people still take the buses to go to schools or the Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui because it's more convenient than taking the MTR," Kwan said. "I think in the short-run, the routes should be kept."
Ling Chi-keung, chairman of the Public Light Bus General Association, said it would be impossible for other operators to take over the routes.
"The operator has been losing money since the opening of the MTR station. With the pandemic, it has been hit by double whammy," Ling said.
"How would any other operator be willing to continue running the routes after its original operator failed to make profits?" He said it might work out if other minibus routes from nearby areas extended their routes to Whampoa Garden.
Ling estimated that the company had at least 100 employees, including drivers, that would be dismissed. "I think more routes and companies will fail to survive as the pandemic continues," he said.
"Most of the minibus passengers are students and daily commuters. We have lost more than 60 per cent business with the commencement of the work-from-home arrangements and class suspensions," Ling said, "but operators still need to pay their drivers and other employees."
He criticised the government for "acting too slow" to help the industry with insufficient subsidies.
On Thursday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced new government subsidies, including each worker's monthly subsidy capped at HK$9,000 for half a year.
The Labour Department has asked the company about the conditions of the employees and reminded it that it must compensate the affected employees according to the Employment Ordinance and contracts.
The Post has contacted Chit Fai Motors for response.
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