After Friday's traffic chaos, Hong Kong must fast-track building of alternative routes to the airport

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 1:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 4:19pm

Planning for a massive expansion of the Hong Kong airport's operations with a third runway is well advanced, but the facility remains dependent on access to and from the rest of the territory via a single road and rail link. We were reminded of this on Friday night after a barge collided with Kap Shui Mun bridge, prompting temporary closure of the Lantau link to the airport, the adjacent AsiaWorld-Expo and Tung Chung satellite town for safety checks. With no alternative except a circuitous route using ferries and buses, this resulted in more than two hours of traffic chaos, the stranding of thousands of passengers either at the airport or on their way to or from there, and nearly 100 flight delays. Admittedly, it was the result of a freak accident - the first incident of its kind in the 17 years the airport has been at Chek Lap Kok. But accidents do happen, as do natural events of unpredictable force.

Meanwhile, traffic on the Lantau link has risen 800 per cent, to nearly 84,000 vehicles a day in July. On the night in question, there was little evidence of contingency planning to keep people informed and limit confusion to maintain some sort of passenger flow to and from the airport. For example, one couple trying to connect with an international flight using the Airport Express rail link described feelings of helplessness in the absence of clear instructions or information from the MTR.

Little wonder the chaos arising from a minor incident has sparked calls for the government to fast-track the building of alternative transport links to the airport, given that a tunnel linking Chek Lap Kok to Tuen Mun - an alternative of kinds - will not be completed for three years.

Ironically, we might already have had one if lawmakers, including the usually pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and some pan-democrats, had not voted down a proposal by the post-handover government of Tung Chee-hwa for the so-called "Route 10" proposal that included a bridge. That decision might have made sense in terms of the economics of the massive investment in the existing link and pleased its operator. But it makes no sense to plan for a 50 per cent expansion of an already busy major airport - not to mention discussion of more residential development on Lantau - while continuing to rely on the original single road and rail link. That issue is now worth revisiting with a sense of urgency, as is the question of more proactive contingency planning in the event of a repeat of Friday's incident.