A bumpy ride - Lau Nai-keung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2010, 12:00am

I must confess my bias towards the express railway link from the outset, as I have been championing the project since 2004 when the official view was that utilising the West Rail would be the best option. I was the first to suggest using Kam Sheung Station as the terminus, in line with my proposal to develop the northwestern part of the New Territories as a new city centre. But, clearly, the government has no plans to develop the northwest, insisting that the Kam Sheung Station option is a no-goer because putting a terminus in the middle of nowhere is illogical.

The government has procrastinated over the project for too long; now, even if it were to decide to develop the northwest, the planning itself would take years and the window of opportunity would close. Hong Kong would be left out of the largest high-speed railway network in the world. In short, if we are not on board now, we will miss the train - period.

The reason I still favour the high-speed railway is not because I am stubborn. I have done my research, including reading, interviews and visits to Japan and Europe, and I have just returned from my second ride on the Beijing-Tianjin route. I know Beijing and Tianjin well; I can see the transformation after the construction of the high-speed railway. I could never have imagined so many services between the two cities that are more than 100 kilometres apart, yet the journey between them now takes just 28 minutes. Trains departing every eight minutes or so are invariably packed. It seems true that supply will create its own demand. The economy of sleepy Tianjin is taking off.

Because property prices in Beijing are so high, some people now choose to live in Tianjin and commute daily to Beijing. We have a similar, but more acute, situation here. Our young people complain they will never be able to buy a flat in Hong Kong. But, in the not-too-distant future, they will be able to buy a much bigger flat at a much lower price in Shenzhen or Dongguan, along the high-speed railway network, and enjoy a much better quality of life. In fact, the high-speed railway will completely alter the way we perceive distance, and change relations between Hong Kong and neighbouring cities, and the way we live. Imagine arriving at the West Kowloon Station after breakfast, having a meeting over lunch in Changsha, in Hunan then enjoying dinner and an opera in Shanghai in the evening and reporting back to the office the next morning.

Such luxury that is currently only affordable to billionaires with their private jets will be available to you and me, and no reservations will be required because trains will depart every seven to 10 minutes.

Some imagine that people will prefer planes over high-speed trains for distances of more than 500 kilometres. I just took a trip by plane to Beijing, some 1,000 kilometres away, and it took me eight hours, door to door. High-speed trains will take about nine hours, but will be cheaper and, if you take an overnight train, you will be able to attend a morning meeting the next day. If you take a plane, you have to arrive in Beijing the night before and stay in a hotel. I bet a lot of people will opt for the train.

As for the cost of construction, HK$66.9 billion is a large figure which may scare the layman, but it is not high for this type of project. The building cost for the proposed high-speed railway is HK$2.57 billion per kilometre, whereas the comparable figure for the Island West extension is HK$2.67 billion, and for the Sha Tin-Central Line, HK$2.2 billion. A few years back, the then-Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation spent over HK$4 billion to build the one-kilometre Hung Hom-Tsim Sha Tsui East extension, but no one even raised an eyebrow. If we cannot afford the high-speed railway, we might as well stop building any more rail or subway lines because the investment outlay for rail transport is, by nature, that expensive.

Finally, there is no technical reason why the dual custom and immigration checks cannot be done in West Kowloon; this is the usual practice at many cross-country checkpoints. It has become a political issue raised by Hong Kong dissidents because they do not want to see 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung being barred from boarding the train in Hong Kong. If we allow mainland uniformed personnel to work in Hong Kong, in a certain area for certain specific purposes, then the problem can be solved overnight.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development