Hong Kong is not going to let the coronavirus that has infected at least 49 people in the city hold back the inauguration of the first phase of the Tuen Ma Line – previously known as the Shatin-Central Link – that will boost connectivity between the city’s CBD and the largest commuter town.
A stretch of the new line to be opened on Friday runs from Tai Wai in the New Territories to Kai Tak in east Kowloon, the site of the city’s former airport, adding another link between downtown and the southern reaches of the New Territories to alleviate congestion on the existing East Rail Line as commuters can be diverted.
It extends from the current Ma On Shan Line and will eventually be connected to the West Rail Line, but shoddy work at Hung Hom station on the Victoria Harbor waterfront and falsified quality inspection records have delayed the opening of several other new stations along the way.
This was also the case for the cross-harbor section to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai and further to Admiralty on Hong Kong Island, with its opening being pushed back multiple times to no earlier than 2022.
MTR Corp, Hong Kong’s metro operator, has seen passenger numbers and operating revenue plummet further with the virus outbreak since the end of January, as the highly infectious pathogen scares people away from the streets and taking public transport.
The government and MTR expect no big crowds to throng to new stations on the opening day now that the total daily passenger flow on the entire network hovers around the level of four to five million, about a third lower than the typical patronage on a weekday.
Still, the transportation giant has appealed to railway enthusiasts not to rush to take the inaugural service on Valentine’s Day.
There are fears that the new line may become a new conduit for the contagion, as stations and train compartments can be crawling with the virus.
It has been revealed that some of the city’s first batch of people infected with the acute respiratory disease had traveled along the East Rail Line and Ma On Shan Line, after entering the city via immigration checkpoints along the border with mainland China.
Some epidemiologists have also warned that the coronavirus could be “hitching a ride” along the extensive MTR network to creep into more neighborhoods across the city.
MTR Corporation has scrambled to assure riders that seats, handrails, buttons etc will be sterilized regularly and that viruses cannot exist on these surfaces for a prolonged period of time.
Officials have also brushed aside any health scares as the government has already shut the two busiest border checkpoints served by the East Rail Line. With a sweeping 14-day quarantine order for anyone entering the city from the mainland, the cross-border flow of people has been reduced to a few thousand this week and all have been put under mandatory home quarantine irrespective of their health.
Anyone from Wuhan of the province of Hubei, where the epidemic started, has been banned from entering since the end of January.
The MTR has, however, urged extra vigilance. “In view of the coronavirus outbreak, we call on the public to be mindful of their personal hygiene and avoid going to places with large crowds of people gathering,” said the company in a statement.
That said, the company has stopped short of addressing calls to deploy staff to turn away passengers not wearing masks. Indeed, some of its employees have threatened a general strike if the company fails to provide them with adequate masks and goggles. Hong Kong has been grappling with a constant undersupply of these protective tools.
The MTR continues to operate its nine lines throughout the territory despite the epidemic and the fact that its peers in mainland Chinese cities have stopped running half-empty trains or shut their entire networks to stop the viral spread and cut losses.