Public needs to know how its money is spent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 August, 2009, 12:00am

The high speed railway project to Guangzhou may bring many benefits. But cutting by half the journey time from Hong Kong to the centre of that city will not be one of them. The service will simply not live up to the billing the government has given it. Hongkongers are therefore entitled to ask why this was not made clear earlier - and why legislators did not scrutinise the HK$39.5 billion project properly.

Despite having had almost five years to pore over details of the planning for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong railway, no one in the Legislative Council bothered to ask where the Guangzhou terminus would be located. It will be in Shibi, Panyu , 23 kilometres and an estimated 45-minute metro ride from central Guangzhou. Add to that the 50 minutes or so it takes to reach Shibi, a Hong Kong traveller will be no better off than taking the existing rail service. This is not a minor oversight. The government is committed to spending taxpayers' money on building our city's end of the project. It has, from the start, touted the ability of the new rail link to halve travel time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. That was the prime appeal of the project and has been a key factor in winning over legislators across party lines.

In their defence, chairwoman of the Legco railways subcommittee, Miriam Lau Kin-yee, said lawmakers did not question the location of the terminus because it was outside Hong Kong. This is implausible. More likely, they were asleep at the wheel. Surely, where the rail link ends has major implications for whether Hong Kong should devote billions of dollars to the project. Now that there has been publicity about the Shibi terminus, transport officials have changed tack. They are no longer hailing the ability of the project to save travel time. Instead, the real benefit of the Shibi site is that it will become a transit hub from which travellers can easily hop on the new high-speed rail network under construction to link major cities across the nation. A speedy, clean and efficient railway linking up to a national network certainly has its attractions. It might even change the preference Hong Kong travellers have for flying to cities such as Wuhan , Shanghai and Beijing instead of going by rail.

It will not, however, help travellers to central Guangzhou. The convenience of Hong Kong travellers is not a priority for Guangdong officials. But by putting a station in Shibi, they are not necessarily making it easier for Guangzhou residents either. The whole episode looks like a repeat of the Shanghai Maglev - or magnetic levitation trains - which despite being named after the city, do not go to its centre, but to Pudong instead. This is not to deny that Shibi has the potential to become a success - once a hub is built there, people will have to use it. But whatever benefits there may be in future will seem remote to Hong Kong passengers who simply wish to cut travel time.

Officials are not always as forthcoming as they should be about cross-border projects. Typically, they tout the economic benefits and emphasise aspects they think will appeal to the public. Construction of the new railway - mostly involving digging tunnels on the Hong Kong side of the border - will create jobs and generate business for local companies. The benefits from the project, the government says, will amount to HK$80 billion over 50 years for Hong Kong. This is despite officials having only vague projected passenger figures and no idea about ticket costs. No one denies big infrastructure projects can generate enormous benefits, but they must have realistic goals and be presented to the public accurately. Lawmakers must now make sure the government meets those standards with the railway.