MTR's maintenance staff race against time to tug away the two trains that collided during a test run while carrying no passengers on Monday. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong’s trusty subway operator MTR Corporation was jolted out of any complacency it might have been suffering from after a train collision on Monday, the first such accident in its 40 years of service.

MTR swiftly towed away mangled compartments and cleared debris on tracks after two empty trains sideswiped each other near the city’s Central station in the early hours of Monday morning. The accident took place during a trial run to test a new HK$3.3 billion (US$420 million) signaling system aimed at boosting capacity. The two drivers involved suffered minor injuries

Service between Central and Admiralty stations in the city’s busy central business district was partially suspended for two days.

Now facing public clamor over the safety of its service, a blame game is on as MTR, the operator of a profitable service renowned for its reliability, has blamed the accident on negligence of major software supplier Thales. However the Paris-based multinational, together with its Canadian subsidiary that designed the new rail signaling solutions, has hit back at what it terms MTR’s lack of a trained eye for risks when conducting tests.

The crash happened at a crossing near Central and Admiralty stations. And the interior of a mangled passenger compartment reveals the destructive force of the impact. Photos: Handouts

MTR’s account of the collision on the Tsuen Wan Line is that the crash happened after a failure by Thales to run a simulation beforehand of the particular scenario that was the subject of Monday’s trial run. This, according to MTR, along with a software error in the new system, SelTrac, simultaneously assigned the same crossing to two trains. However, local newspapers report that Thales insists it had not received a request for such a simulation.

MTR said earlier that the incident occurred during tests which simulated switching to a second backup system during peak hours with trains traveling close to each another, after the main and the first backup systems both failed to marshal trains.

There are reports that MTR will sue Thales for damages. Although the rail operator may have a strong case, experts say the company could have also failed to notify Thales to simulate all scenarios, including the trial run to switch to a second backup system.

Amaury Jourdan, vice-president for Thales’ technical and transport activity, earlier told Hong Kong papers that there was “nothing wrong” with the design of the software, saying the issue was related to the specific “redundancy architecture” for the Hong Kong system, hinting that MTR’s request for a second backup system was to blame for the doomed test run.

The accident forced MTR to suspend train service partially between Central and Admiralty stations for two days this week, leading to overcrowding in the two stations that serve the city’s CBD. Photo: Asia Times

Meanwhile, the signaling system allegedly at fault was also behind a morning rush-hour crash in Singapore in November 2017, in which 36 passengers and two employees were injured after a packed train rear-ended another stationary train at the city’s Joo Koon Station.

According to Singapore’s Land Transport Authority, the collision was caused by a “software logic issue” that prevented communication between equipment on board the train and trackside. A string of software flaws meant that a safety feature devised to ensure the maintaining of sufficient distances between trains was disabled, and Thales was said to have fixed the issue that year.

As well as Singapore, the London Underground is using similar technology to modernize its signaling infrastructure on the Jubilee and Northern lines.

Thales, in a consortium with fellow French company Alstom, was awarded the contract to install new signaling and upgrade the systems on seven of MTR’s 11 lines.

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