on the rails

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

Whether for a few short underground stops or a lengthier commute, train travel is part of daily life for most Hong Kong people.

Construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) started in 1906 and was completed in 1910; the section from Lo Wu into the interior opened in 1911. Rail lines to the border were duplicated and electrification was completed in 1983, which made commuting from the New Territories an easy option.

Tsim Sha Tsui's attractive railway station was built at the KCR's southern terminus. Made from red brick and local granite, it was a well-known local landmark for more than 60 years, before its demolition in 1978, despite concerted public protest. The imposing station clock tower - now in front of the Cultural Centre - remains as a forlorn landmark, but the site where the main station buildings once stood is still open space, unshaded and studded with spindly royal palms.

Railways stimulated other development projects. Hong Kong's world-famous Peninsula hotel was built partly to tap into the burgeoning rail traffic during the worldwide economic boom of the 'roaring twenties'. Until The Peninsula opened across the road from the terminus, Hong Kong's leading hotels were on Hong Kong Island.

In the 1920s and 30s it was possible to book a through ticket from Kowloon station all the way to London Victoria. With changes in Canton (modern Guangzhou), Hankow (now part of Wuhan), Peping ('Northern Peace', as Beijing was renamed for a time during the Nationalist era), Mukden (now Shenyang), Moscow, Berlin and Paris, passengers would arrive in Britain 10 days after having left Hong Kong - assuming the train had not been stopped by bandits along the way. The Trans-Siberian remained the fastest route for mail before air services were introduced in the 30s. Envelopes marked 'Via Siberia' are keenly sought-after collectors' items.

Pre-war, the 'Flying Dragon' express advertised the 175km inter-city route from Kowloon to Canton as taking 177 minutes; not much slower than through-train services 70 years later. Ordinary passenger trains took eight hours or more. Direct cross-border train services ceased after the communist takeover on the mainland and only resumed in 1979, with a limited through-train service to Guangzhou. Numerous daily expresses now operate to Beijing, Shanghai and other mainland cities.

The recent KCR-MTR merger saw the MTR corporate name and image predominate. Despite much hand-wringing in recent years over vanishing aspects of Hong Kong's 'collective memory', the Kowloon-Canton Railway, and its distinctive logo, have quietly vanished into history.