New transport links threaten to go off rails
The city could do without duplicating the economic waste of the overuse of the central harbour crossing coupled with the underuse of the eastern and western alternatives. But it is on track to manage it after the beginning yesterday of the KCRC spur line service to the Lok Ma Chau border crossing and the opening last month of the Western Corridor road border crossing.
Rail operator KCRC admits it is uncertain how many cross-border passengers will be diverted from the busy Lo Wu terminal by the new line, which does little to allay fears about the return on the HK$10 billion project. Also alarming is the daily average of only five trucks using the HK$7.8 billion Western Corridor crossing in the first month after it opened. Circumstances have obviously changed since the projects were launched, and ways must be found to encourage their use.
The new cross-border links are designed to ease the burden on Lo Wu and make Hong Kong-Shenzhen transport links more efficient. But a faster immigration service at Lo Wu has slashed waiting times, and slowing growth in cross-border passenger numbers has gone mostly to the Lok Ma Chau crossing - mainly in buses. Unless the KCRC spur line reduces fares or otherwise proves more attractive than the buses, people will continue to use them, particularly given concerns repeated yesterday about transport links on the Shenzhen side of the border.
And truck drivers still prefer the busy Lok Ma Chau checkpoint, even though the Western Corridor is the quickest way to Shenzhen west - home to many Hong Kong-invested factories. Congestion on the Yueliangwan Bridge can turn a 15-minute saving into a half-hour time loss, and a new highway link to major cities in the west is not expected to open until 2009. Further disincentives to truck drivers are a daily six-hour closure of the Western Corridor border checkpoint, and the lack of transport company offices to help smooth inspection procedures and food and drink outlets. The authorities could consider lowering fees to make it more competitive.
Rail transport is to be encouraged for environmental reasons. Ironically, the cost of the Lok Ma Chau spur line includes HK$2 billion to tunnel under the environmentally sensitive Long Valley wetland at Sheung Shui. The KCRC says it will take 43 to 54 years to turn a profit even if it meets passenger forecasts of 50,000 to 60,000 a day. Given the investment, it should be prepared to consider aggressive pricing to make rail an appealing alternative.
While people should be encouraged to take public transport, the underused Western Corridor raises the question whether it is time to relax the quota for cars. Private vehicles have to be licensed in both Hong Kong and the mainland to cross the border. Any increase has to be reciprocal, allowing more Shenzhen vehicles to drive south. This is a sensitive issue. But the restricted quota does not seem to reflect demand. It is undesirable on social and transport management grounds to encourage too many people to cross the border by private car. Nonetheless, it is an issue authorities on both sides have to face.
Had there been no border, road and rail transport links with the Pearl River Delta would long since have developed in response to demand. Now that we have an improved transport network, incentives to use it efficiently can be justified to ensure that the economic opportunities it presents are not wasted.