Hong Kong MTR

Three areas where rail-link delay investigators need to do some digging

Mike Rowse hopes to understand how initial decisions were taken

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 3:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 3:43am

The appointment of Mr Justice Michael Hartmann to head the independent expert panel reviewing the delay in the express rail link project raises its status a peg or two. Putting one of our top judges on the job - a non-permanent member of the Court of Final Appeal, no less - means we can expect a meticulous examination of all the relevant issues and a final report which clearly sets out the findings. The expert knowledge of the other two members will be blended with a good helping of common sense and a sense of justice.

It also raises the possibility that the panel will go back to the drawing board and examine some pretty fundamental decisions about the project at the outset. They, after all, sowed the seeds of the situation we now find ourselves in.

I can think of three: first, the decision to site the terminus in West Kowloon; second, the decision to set a 2015 target date for completion; third, the decision not to close a major road in the urban area to allow a thorough site investigation. To a degree, these decisions were in conflict with each other.

Construction of the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link is part of the national network connecting all major cities in the country by high-speed train.

In every other city in China, the new dedicated station has been built outside the city, partly on cost grounds and partly to avoid disruption to the existing urban area. There are obvious advantages in terms of ease and speed of construction, too.

In Hong Kong, we too could have pursued a similar option by putting the terminus on a brownfield site in the New Territories and connecting it to the established urban areas with good highways. Bearing in mind that more than half our population now live in the New Territories, that would have been reasonable. Such an option was indeed considered.

But a conscious decision was made to bring the railway right into the heart of the city. That decision carried a number of critical consequences. It meant the line would have to be much longer. It would be much more challenging in engineering terms. It would take longer to build. It would be hugely more expensive. And there would be serious disruption to life in some parts of the urban area.

Our government can be a bit gung-ho about the cost of capital works projects. As others have pointed out, our policy to put all land revenues into a separate dedicated Capital Works Reserve Fund means there is always plenty of cash available for the latest boondoggle.

There is a strong suspicion about who really set the completion date, too. Did the engineers say, "It will only take us this long", or did the politicians say, "We've fallen behind other Chinese cities and it must be finished quickly. You must aim for 2015"? I have my doubts.

Then there is the matter of site investigation. Any reputable engineer worth his salt will tell you that, for a project of that magnitude, there must be a thorough investigation of the site. "It would be criminal not to," one engineer friend tells me.

But to do the job properly would have required closing the golf driving range and at least one major road in the area. Someone, somewhere decided those things would not be done. Hence, when the work started and hard rock was found where it had been assumed there was soft earth, the programme went to hell.

It is too late to change the location of the terminus now, of course. We have to live with the earlier decisions and hope the MTR Corporation can finish the project as soon as possible.

But we look to the expert panel to tell us the whole story about how we got into this mess, not just the convenient version putting all the blame on the engineers and letting the politicos off the hook.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.