Direct trains to Guangzhou put cross-border links back on track
Choi Wai-hang was one of the frequent travellers on the Guangzhou-Kowloon through trains in the early days of its resumption of service in 1979.
He knows well how the service made the cross-border journey less tiresome. After the through service between Guangzhou and Kowloon was suspended in 1949, travellers from Hong Kong had to cross the border on foot to Shenzhen to catch another train to Guangzhou after the Kowloon-Canton train from Hung Hom reached Lo Wu.
'We used to catch a train from Hung Hom at 7am and would not arrive in Guangzhou until 3pm or 4pm that day.
'It's hard for the younger generation to imagine that a trip between Hong Kong and Guangzhou would take up to nine hours,' said Mr Choi, director of Reiss, Bradley and Company, a British trading firm in Hong Kong in the late 1970s.
The direct service between the two cities opened in 1911 but was suspended in 1949 after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Starting from the late 1950s, Mr Choi used to travel to Guangzhou to attend the China Import and Export Fair, popularly known as the Canton Fair, held twice a year in the spring and autumn. The Canton Fair, which was inaugurated in 1957, is the mainland's largest trade fair.
'Until the late 1970s, you could not return to the mainland unless you held a permit applied for by your relatives on the mainland or an invitation issued by Canton Fair organisers,' Mr Choi explains.
Cross-border journeys became easier following the re-introduction of direct trains to Guangzhou on April 4, 1979, a few months after the mainland embarked on the path of opening up and reform.
Hong Kong 1980, the colonial government's annual report, described the resumption after a 30-year suspension as 'the most momentous event' of 1979 for the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation.
The trains were air conditioned with 640 reclining seats.
'There was only a pair of trains operating daily between Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 1979 and the fare for a single trip was about HK$20,' Mr Choi said. 'Most passengers were Hong Kong businessmen and people visiting their relatives on the mainland.'
Mr Choi, who is a veteran specialist in China's trade and a former Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress, said a journey between Kowloon and Guangzhou on a through train took nearly four hours in the late 1970s.
'It was just half the time spent before the resumption of the through train service and we no longer had to get off the train in Lo Wu and walk across the border to catch another train,' he said. 'From then on, it became more convenient for us to travel to the mainland.'
There are now 12 pairs of trains operating daily between Hong Kong and Guangzhou and the journey time is 100 minutes. The fare for a single journey is HK$190. However, the travel time to the provincial capital is set to be cut by at least half, thanks to a rail link set to be completed in 2014-2015, under a HK$39.5 billion cross-border project approved early this year.
Under the project, Hong Kong will be integrated with the mainland's rail network. Starting in West Kowloon, the link will cut travel time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou by 48 minutes, from the 100 minutes of the Kowloon-Guangzhou link, and will dovetail with all mainland networks from the Guangzhou hub.
KCRC operations were merged with those of the MTR Corporation in December last year.
The rail journey from Kowloon to Guangzhou used to take Choi Wai-hang nine hours, but it was a price the trader had to pay for attending the Canton Fair
Born in Hong Kong
Joined Reiss Bradley, British trading firm in Hong Kong
Detained at Mount Davis concentration camp during riots
Served as director of Reiss Bradley
Appointed Hong Kong deputy to National People's Congress
Then and now
The number of passengers carried by the HK-Guangzhou through-train service