Construction of airport project hit by labour scarcity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 1996, 12:00am

CONSTRUCTION work on a number of key projects along the Mass Transit Railway Corp's (MTRC) new airport railway line, including three stations, is running behind schedule.

The worst affected are Tsing Yi station, which is up to three months behind schedule, Hong Kong Island Central station at about 10 weeks and Kowloon station which is six weeks late.

Valued at more than $3.13 billion, Hong Kong Island is the MTRC's flagship site because it is the biggest of the five airport railway stations and is prominently in front of Exchange Square.

An MTRC spokesman said work on the three sites had fallen behind schedule largely due to labour shortages.

The MTRC's Daphne Mak Wan-mui, said: 'The shortage of labour is the only problem affecting these stations. There are no problems on the technical or construction side.' The southern section of the West Kowloon expressway and the Kwai Chung viaduct, part of the Route 3 highway to China, also have delays.

Smaller contracts, including drainage work on the West Kowloon reclamation and construction of its northern and southern area road networks, have also been hit.

In all projects worth $10.66 billion have been affected.

The difficulties are due to a variety of factors, including staff shortages, poor ground conditions and - particularly at the railway station sites - delays caused by the Government's bureaucratic labour importation scheme.

The MTRC has become so alarmed by the situation that the normally reticent organisation has taken the unusual step of using airport railway project director Russell Black to highlight the problems during high-profile media events.

The most recent was last week's ceremony to mark the structural completion of the Tai Kok Tsui airport railway station.

He said 5,000 imported workers were needed to ensure the $35 billion airport railway was completed by the June 1998 deadline.

'The problem is two-fold,' said an MTRC insider.

'On the one hand there are problems getting agreement for this many people in the first place.

'The other, possibly more serious, is the length of time it takes Government to process the visa applications of these workers once a quota has been agreed,' he said.

The MTRC is scared the relatively recent delays at Tsing Yi and other stations will get out of hand when the installation of electrical and mechanical services peaks later this year and next.

Contractors said it could take up to six months between applying for a quota and seeing workers arrive on site.

The New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office (Napco), the Government agency overseeing the $158 billion airport core programme, said the visa processing time had been reduced to three months following talks with MTRC and other groups.

But MTRC doubts whether these measures will be effective, at least in the short-term.

Elsewhere Government officials and contractors are working to ensure delays on other parts of the core work do not impact on overall opening due by next May.

On the West Kowloon Expressway, the Highways Department and contractor the Aoki Corporation is set to reach agreement on a deal that would re-programme the remaining construction work on the $962.5 million southern section.

'Negotiations are at a difficult stage, but we hope for an agreement that will increase the [amount] of labour on site,' said a department insider.

'It will finish later than intended,' he added.

The department had hoped to open the southern and northern sections - where work is on schedule - early to provide relief to other main routes in Kowloon, but this will not be possible.

The southern section connects with the Western Harbour Crossing, which is expected to open about three months early in April next year. Highways officials are confident the holdups on the southern section will not effect this opening date.

On the nearby $2.6 billion Kwai Chung Viaduct, completion is expected in January, more than a month later than originally planned. The difficulties were largely caused by poor ground conditions at the start of the job, which were exacerbated by labour shortages.

'There have been a number of mediations [to settle disputes] which have been very successful.

'Everything is now going very well,' said the Highways Department source.

Extensive drainage work in Kowloon to support future development on the adjacent reclamation has been hit because of the myriad of unchartered buried pipes. Construction has to slow while each pipe is investigated and traced to find out what it contains and where it goes.

'The main problem is the large number of underground utilities which are not kept in the records,' said Territory Development Department senior engineer Lo Sing-yi.

Similar delays exists on the southern and northern area road networks.

More staff have been deployed and working hours extended on critical parts of the southern area project.