Hong Kong's MTR
Passengers on the MTR underground train in Hong Kong MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong's underground tube operator MTR Corp has imposed a new scheme that requires a special permit to be obtained before commuters can travel on their trains with large musical instruments. The transport operator said it is also exploring options for travelling with oversized sporting and recreational equipment on its trains.

MTR said it will review the scheme at the end of the trial period to evaluate its effectiveness and to see if there is a need for any changes or adjustments. Needless to say, the scheme has caused an outcry not only among musicians but also art directors.

The four-month trial scheme requires commuters to obtain a special Carriage of Oversized Musical Instrument Permit. The scheme kicked off on 2 November. The underground said it will start accepting registrations for the permit for oversized musical instruments beyond the current limits but with the longest side not exceeding 145cm and total dimensions of length, height and width below 235cm. The total dimensions include the carry case.

The permit allows the registered person to bring one oversized instrument into stations and trains at any one time during MTR service hours except in the morning peak period between 8.15am and 9.15am from Mondays to Fridays. This does not include public holidays, it clarified in a statement.

"This trial registration scheme was designed after listening to the views of the public and we thank them for working with us, especially our friends in the music community, The existing size rule does not affect most musical instruments, and with this special arrangement in place, we believe we will be able to cover the vast majority of the musical instruments that our passengers have a genuine need to carry," said Jacob Kam, the operations director at MTR Corp in a statement.

Kam continued: "... We hope the community understands our important responsibility to ensure that the safety and operational requirements of the railway are maintained. Our careful risk assessment has determined it would not be prudent to accommodate instruments larger than 235cm in total or with one side longer than 145cm.

"At the same time, it is crucial that passengers carrying oversized musical instruments under the special permit follow the specific safety rules and guideline prepared for them," Kam added. Instruments that do not exceed the size restrictions are not required to have permits.

Bringing a cello into the Hong Kong underground train may be a problem for some musicians. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

The permits are issued free of charge and will take seven working days to be issued after a request is submitted. The permit lists some safety guidelines. Applicants have to tick each of the boxes next to the safety guidelines before they can proceed to the next page of their online application. The guidelines lists the following:

  • each permit holder should only carry one oversized musical instrument at any one time;
  • please use the lift;
  • be aware of the top of doorways when boarding and exiting trains. Take the instrument off your shoulders if necessary;
  • do not lift the instrument to avoid hitting overhanging objects, and potential electrical hazards when you are near high voltage overhead equipment;
  • do not block doorways, passageways in the trains, lift entrances/exits/staircases, entry/exit gates or evacuation paths; and
  • in the event of an evacuation along the track, leave your instrument behind and leave it in a place where it does not block passageways such as on a seat.

The permit goes on to say that MTR officials have the right to check the instrument and request the permit holder to show proof of identity to show that he or she is the registered permit holder. It also reserves the right to refuse the permit holder to carry the instrument into the MTR premises.

Public outcry over move

Ada Wong Ying-kay, a solicitor-turned-arts-advocate and adviser to the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority said: "The devil is in the detail, and I think it is a trap for anyone to sign and agree to the terms under the trial registration scheme.

On the clause requiring the permit holder to prove their identity, she said: "An instrument is the personal asset of an individual. He or she can allow anyone to borrow it or use it. No authority can deny that right.

"We really cannot allow a public transport provider to continue to insult people like this. If this logic is followed, all over-sized luggage must follow the same registration route which is of course absurd. We will be an international joke," Wong said.

There is also the issue of the ban on when musicians can carry their instruments into the station. Musicians typpically start rehearsals at 10am, which effectively mean that they either will be late for rehearsals or have to leave home very early, a Sinfonietta player told the South China Morning Post.

Richard Bamping, a principal cellist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic since 1993 was similarly dismayed. "I will not be registering. I can't agree to the conditions. My cello would not be insured under the conditions the MTR has required."

He said that he had travelled on the MTR with his cello frequently over the past 23 years with no problems. "But if I'm forced to agree to only travel at certain times, and allow any employee of the company to remove my belongings from my hand and do with them as they see fit, it's too much hassle," he added.