On track, or on the road to nowhere?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2009, 12:00am

A group of villagers from the New Territories were arrested last month for repeatedly interrupting a Legislative Council meeting to discuss plans to build a multi-billion dollar, cross-border express rail.

The 20 angry villagers were expelled from Legco after they shouted offensive remarks at Secretary for Transport Eva Cheng, who was explaining how the cost of the planned Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express link rail had ballooned beyond original estimates.

Residents of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen are angry because construction of the rail link will transform their village into a train depot, forcing them to move away from the place some of them have called home for half a century or more.

There are about 150 households in the village. The majority - around 500 people - have been farming there for decades. They say they plan to stay put and are urging the government to change the location of the rail depot.

But protests by villagers are only one of many issues clouding the express rail project. Legislators, for example, have questioned its cost and sustainability.

Besides the villagers' concerns, cost-efficiency is a key factor in rolling out a mass infrastructure project, such as the express rail, said legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah.

Tong said the number of commuters using the line, if built, would likely fall short of original estimates as two new cross-border links had been built in recent years.

'The number of people using Shenzhen-Hong Kong west corridor [for vehicles] is only 20 per cent of its original forecast and ... Lok Ma Chau Rail Spur Line [is] 50 per cent its projected figure,' he said.

'There has been a tendency by the government to over-estimate user numbers for cross-border infrastructures. It set estimates of daily passenger numbers for the planned rail at 99,000. But I don't think the actual figure will ... reach that level.'

The 26-kilometre underground rail link is expected to almost halve the rail journey to Guangzhou from nearly two hours to 48 minutes when it is completed in 2015.

According to the plan, the express rail will take 14 minutes for passengers to reach Futian in Shenzhen and 48 minutes to Shibi, on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Passengers for Guangzhou's business district will either have to take the existing through train or transfer to the Guangzhou Metro and travel 18 stops.

The new express link would connect Hong Kong to the high-speed, high-frequency inter-city network on the mainland. Officials say this will foster economic integration of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, bringing great benefits in the long term.

Undersecretary for Transport and Housing Yau Shing-mu also said the planned railway would alleviate heavy passenger traffic on the East Rail, which carries about 220,000 travellers to Lo Wu daily.

'The express rail is going to be more convenient than the current MTR through-train service [which costs HK$190 per trip],' he said. 'It may charge a higher fare - but a final decision has not been made yet.'

Yau said officials aimed to operate a competitive rail link and attract passengers to the new service.

But the Democratic Party's Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, deputy chairman of the Legislative Council's transport panel, said the Shibi terminus was inconvenient, because commuters would need to travel for a further 45 minutes on the Guangzhou Metro to reach the city's central areas.

'Unless the authorities are going to develop Shibi as a new central business district over the next few years, it is not likely commuters would opt for the planned express rail,' he said.

He said there were already many alternative routes between Hong Kong and Guangzhou's central business district, such as through trains and coaches.

'Most people go to Guangzhou's central district. There won't be much of a time saving to ride on the express rail. If you take 48 minutes on the express rail and then 45 minute on Metro, it is just the same as a journey on the through train, which takes one-and-a-half hours,' said Cheng.

But associate professor at Baptist University's economics department, Dr Mo Pak-hung, who studies China's economy, said building a rail link to the national rail network would benefit Hong Kong in the long term.

The rapid expansion of Pearl River Delta cities would provide an increasing number of commuters, while the planned rail's connection to the national high-speed rail network could attract long-haul flight passengers, he said.

'The express rail would connect Hong Kong to most major cities including Beijing and Shanghai in one national network. Given the mainland's economic growth, the potential number of business commuters is huge,' Mo said. 'A country with a high population density must build a high-speed rail network because it is more cost-effective and also [more] environmentally friendly.'