The way ahead for railway construction
The MTR's West Island Line has been a long time coming, but has finally been given the green light. In seven years, assuming there are no hitches, we will be able to travel to and from Kennedy Town more quickly and less stressfully in the knowledge that the most environment-friendly means of transport available is taking us there.
This would not have been possible were it not for the government making an exception to its policy that the MTR Corporation be self-sustaining through fares and property development. The HK$6 billion capital grant to the MTR Corp for the HK$8.9 billion project will ensure that the line, talked about for more than two decades but not built on the grounds it would be uneconomical, is constructed. Authorities should have adopted this approach long ago. Now that they have a change of heart, they must apply it with speed to other much-needed rail projects. Hong Kong has pressing social and environmental needs that make old policies obsolete.
The rail link from Sheung Wan to Kennedy Town is a perfect example of why a rethink was needed. Too few people will use the line to ensure fare revenue covers its cost and because the area is already developed, the MTR Corp will not be able to recover construction costs by building shops, offices and housing above the three planned stations.
Yet the western part of Hong Kong Island urgently needs an alternative to the bus and tram routes that serve residents, workers and students. During peak hours, travelling times for the short distance to Central can be 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour, along the jammed roads. The choking traffic fumes attest to the unhealthy conditions this creates.
Although some of our city's sleekest residential developments are in the area, many of its neighbourhoods are run-down. The new line will help provide much-needed rejuvenation.
Our premier educational institution, the University of Hong Kong at Pok Fu Lam, is served only by buses, despite having more than 21,000 students and many visitors to its lectures and facilities. Connecting it to our clean and efficient subway system will greatly benefit this vibrant and essential part of our community.
What is true for Western District also applies to other parts of Hong Kong for which planned rail connections have not got past the discussion stage due to economics. The MTR South Island line, one of 10 big infrastructure projects foreshadowed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in his recent policy address, would give similar benefits to Aberdeen. A long-sought KCR line from Sha Tin to Central would slash travelling times and boost development along the way. Better rail services to western parts of the New Territories would have a similar impact.
The government policy of ensuring rail projects pay for themselves has had a price. Districts not considered to have a large enough population to support a new line have remained unconnected to networks. This has stunted their development and put more traffic on the roads and, in consequence, increased roadside air pollution. Travelling time to work and school has cut deeply into home and social life, causing unhappiness and stress.
Given these circumstances, the government's shift in approach has to be applauded. But the West Island Line must not just be an exception - it has to become the new rail transport rule.
This way, Hong Kong can best move forward in the sustained manner expected of a city of our stature.