Hong Kong’s coronavirus outbreak has brought a steep fall in January passenger numbers for a city rail operator already battered by months of anti-government unrest, with observers warning of even more hard times ahead.
According to the latest figures from the MTR Corporation, ridership on domestic services was 116.5 million in January, down 21 per cent year on year.
Its high-speed link to mainland China recorded the biggest drop in traveller numbers – down almost 40 per cent to 1.05 million, from 1.7 million in January last year.
The grim figures came as the rail giant, already reeling from the suspension of the high-speed and through-train services to the mainland in late January, shut its remaining cross-border service at Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau stations on the East Rail line early this month, in a bid to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has infected more than 80 people in the city.
The Airport Express was the second-hardest hit last month, with passenger numbers plunging almost 36 per cent year on year to 972,000, from 1.5 million. Other cross-border rail services also took a severe beating, with passenger numbers for January down by 32 per cent to 7 million from 10.4 million a year ago.
The firm has already suffered massive blows to its operations and revenue because of the months-long anti-government protests, triggered in June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
In August, the MTR Corp became a target of radical protesters, who accused it of bowing to Beijing and colluding with police. Vandals have repeatedly trashed stations, set facilities on fire, hurled petrol bombs at entrances, spray-painted graffiti on walls, and hurled objects onto tracks.
In December, the rail operator revealed that the protests would cost it HK$1.6 billion (US$205 million) in forgone fares, repairs to damaged facilities, extra security expenses, and concessions given to tenants because of dwindling footfall.
The firm also said that from Saturday, due to falling passenger demand, it would reduce services during non-peak hours, weekends and public holidays, with intervals extending to up to eight minutes for urban lines and 15 minutes per train for the Airport Express, and 20 minutes per train on the Disneyland line.
Hong Kong Federation of Railway Trade Unions vice-chairman Tam Kin-chiu predicted the tough times would continue, saying management had informed him that ridership had plunged 40 per cent since the Lunar New Year in late January.
However, he advised the company against cutting jobs or trying to slash salaries or benefits.
“It’s natural that the MTR Corp is seeking to cut costs. But all these measures should not affect staff welfare,” he said.
“The company should take this opportunity to strengthen workers’ vocational skills, such as deploying station staff for other jobs such as depot backup operations and retraining.”m
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for the Public Transport Research Team, a commuter concern group, said he was pessimistic about the MTR’s near-term outlook.
Noting that cross-border services were closed, he said: “We can envisage that there will be zero income for these services as long as they remain shut.”
“There’s no end in sight to this outbreak. We can’t imagine what will be the worst for the MTR,” he warned, adding that he hoped the company could strike a balance between passenger demand and service reductions.
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