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Laying down routes

As Kowloon Motor Bus turns 80, Stuart Heaver finds Hong Kong's excellent public transport system could offer a lesson or two for other cities, not least London

 

In January, the London Underground's 150th anniversary was heralded internationally as a great milestone in the history of public transport. This week, Hong Kong marks a prestigious transit anniversary of its own, Saturday being the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Kowloon Motor Bus Company (1933), which, with a fleet of 3,919 buses, remains one of the largest road-passenger transport operators in Asia and the world's largest privately owned bus company operating in a single city.

No doubt there is some justification for London's pride in its pioneering metro system, but Hongkongers who have experienced its antique and decrepit infrastructure may well reflect that some modest celebration of their own city's superior transport networks may be overdue.

KMB (the company has always been known by its initials) can, in fact, trace its roots back as far as 1921, when it operated a small number of rickety, red Model T Ford buses on two routes: one from the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui to Sham Shui Po; the other from Yau Ma Tei to Kowloon City. On the former route, competition was fierce between KMB and its yellow-liveried rival, China Motor Bus Company (CMB), with both charging 15 cents for the ride.

Anecdotal history suggests that those early KMB buses had no radiator caps to assist engine cooling and that drivers would wait behind a cloud of steam until at least five passengers had boarded their vehicle before hooting at passing rickshaw drivers and setting off from the ferry concourse.

In 1888, the Peak Tram began offering well-heeled residents an alternative mode of transport to the popular sedan chair, and 1904 saw the introduction of a tram service on Hong Kong Island. But even by the 1920s, on the Kowloon side of the harbour there were relatively few public-transport options besides rickshaws and the Kowloon to Canton railway.

The interwar years were characterised by a growing interest in public works and transport infrastructure, and in the 30s the colonial government responded to public dissatisfaction with existing services by inviting tenders for two bus franchises. These were to be monopolies on designated routes, with the government receiving a share of the profits.

KMB, founded by local banker Tang Shiu-kin and four partners, won the franchise to operate on Kowloon side while CMB moved over to run all the services on Hong Kong Island (CMB's franchise lapsed in 1998 and was taken up by New World First Bus Services). At the time, it was widely assumed KMB had drawn the short straw, as Kowloon and the New Territories, although much larger areas, were mostly rural and undeveloped, and it was thought there would remain relatively low demand for public transport on that side of the harbour. Those assumptions would be proven wrong and, although its road has not been without its potholes - or Bus Uncles - KMB's network has grown; the veins delivering lifeblood to a fast-growing city.

When the franchise became effective, KMB operated a total of 18 routes in Kowloon and the New Territories, with a fleet of 110 small, single-deck buses. Their depot was located on Nullah Road, in Mong Kok, and two classes of seat were offered, with first-class passengers enjoying the comfort of a cushion.

The franchise agreement required all buses to be purchased from British or Commonwealth manufacturers and it is often said that the expansion of Hong Kong's bus network in the 70s kept Britain's crippled bus-manufacturing industry alive - even today, most of KMB's major vehicle suppliers are based in Britain or Ireland.

The KMB story is a classic Hong Kong tale of growth and success, and the company's development mirrored the expansion of the city's population, as newly arrived migrants depended on buses to get to work.

Curiously, KMB, like most other players in Hong Kong's generally excellent public-transport checkerboard, prefers not to sound its own horn too loudly; even its motto - "Moving forward every day" - sounds matter-of-fact. You don't hear much boasting about the city's gleaming MTR system, its ultra-reliable and ultra-cheap trams, or its historic harbour ferries.

Public transport in Hong Kong may be one huge success story - it's cheap but still profitable for operators, it's safe and it's efficient - but still there is talk of how the city can learn from others, particular-ly London.

Is this false modesty or do Hongkongers genuinely fail to recognise what a great public-transport system they have? Certainly there is no lack of enthusiasm, even affection for it, at the 80M Bus Model Shop in Western Market.

 

IT IS A RAINY WEEKDAY and a youth with thick black spectacles and a small rucksack has his nose pressed against the glass of a display cabinet as he surveys the vast array of models, ranging in price from HK$298 to more than HK$600. After 20 minutes of careful deliberation, he selects a 70s KMB model and carefully places his purchase in his bag.

An elderly man buys a large silver London taxi while a smartly dressed Western businessman furtively admires items in the ferries and trams section.

The 80M Bus Model Shop was founded in 1993 by Peter Kwok Ping-wah and there are now six outlets in the city and an online arm that sells thousands of models each year.

"Our customers are aged from three years old to 80 years old," says Kwok "but they are predominantly male."

He is expecting delivery of commemorative models to mark the KMB anniversary and says 70s Daimler buses remain the firm favourites among his customers. Kwok has his own theory about why buses are so important to Hongkongers.

"When Hong Kong first developed, there was an influx of migrants and buses were a vital means of transportation," he says. "Scenes of overcrowded buses have become a collective memory."

Is the modern-day KMB aware of this passion for its vehicles?

"Oh yes," says Susanna Sin, a KMB spokeswoman. "I have a friend who is a bus fan and he collects all the models - his bedroom is half filled with buses."

She estimates there are between 8,000 and 10,000 bus enthusiasts in Hong Kong. Friends of KMB is a group set up by the company; it has more than 3,000 members, who meet regularly and even do voluntary work in the community.

"The bus fans are not just model collectors," Sin says. "They consider themselves experts on bus routes and models. They hold forums and often submit proposals to the company on how to improve bus routes."

Edmond Ho Tat-man is KMB's managing director and therefore has ultimate responsibility for serving about a quarter of Hong Kong's travelling public every day. The 3,919 buses operated by his team of some 12,000 staff cover more than 1.4 million kilometres a day.

For a man with a great deal to contend with, from passenger safety to the share price of what is, after all, a listed company, the Cambridge University-educated engineer remains something of a bus nut himself. He talks at length about improvements to emissions controls, new technology and trials of electric buses. He also has his own views on the quality of the local public-transport system and how it has developed.

"The Hong Kong system is not bad because the government invests in infrastructure; particularly in railways," Ho says. But he warns there is no room for complacency: "The biggest enemy of bus transport is congestion. And over the past five years, average traffic speed has deteriorated by 30 to 40 per cent."

He points to London's introduction of a congestion charge and the implementation of bus and taxi lanes as the way ahead and believes Hong Kong can learn much from cities such as the British capital and Singapore.

"I have regular meetings with TFL [Transport for London] and even when I am on holiday abroad, I find myself looking at bus shelters and taking photos of bus stops.

"Yes, I do get lots of complaints from my wife about not moving fast enough to the shopping centre," he adds, with a smile.

Does he have any idea why his company induces such passion among enthusiasts?

"Because they use our service every day, they grow up with us and many even find their girlfriends through us," he suggests.

London-based transport historian Mike Davis has written two books on KMB. A Hong Kong resident between 1964 and 1984, he remains a regular visitor to the city. Tall, with a mop of white hair, Davis recalls how, as a transport enthusiast, he could not believe it when he arrived at Kai Tak airport on a British Army posting and the first thing he saw was a double-decker London bus.

"From that moment I was hooked on Hong Kong's buses," says Davis, who was introduced to the pleasures of bus and train spotting as a young boy by his grandfather, during a trip to Bromley South railway station in England.

Having studied the public-transport systems of both cities, does he think Hong Kong has anything to learn from London?

"To some extent the opposite is true," he says, talking outside the Transport Museum, in London's Covent Garden. "The technology now being put into London's Underground is copied from the MTR and the new London overground rail system is actually partly owned by the Hong Kong MTR. There is [also] much that Europe in general could learn from Hong Kong's franchising system."

Davis concedes that London's bus system has improved as a result of the congestion charge and investment made prior to the 2012 Olympic Games.

"London's system is 150 years old; so you can only improve and upgrade it," he explains, making the network sound like a dusty exhibit in the nearby museum.

He also points out that, unlike that in Hong Kong, London's public-transport system has over the years been at the mercy of prevailing political climates, having been nationalised and denationalised then renationalised before being handed to TFL to run.

"Politics are less of a factor in the Hong Kong system," says Davis. "Public transport is more of a necessity in Hong Kong because there are very few alternatives and, until recently, car ownership has been repressed."

There are cultural issues at play, too, says Davis.

"Sadly, we [British] just don't have the entrepreneurial get up and go of the Victorians or modern Hongkongers," he says. "And the passion for those model buses … well, that's unique to Hong Kong."

My subsequent journey on the Underground from the Transport Museum to Tufnell Park reinforces Davis' views. Delayed due to a fault with the 20s lift system at Covent Garden station and then having to stand for most of the journey, which involved two line changes, the ride is far from a pleasurable experience. The carriages and platforms are crowded and noisy, and the air musty as the train clanks and crashes along for 35 minutes - much as these trains have done for the past century and more. The single fare with an Oyster card is £2.10 (HK$25.20) and the only part of this journey worthy of celebration is the relief at its completion.

By contrast, the journey to KMB headquarters in Lai Chi Kok on the MTR from Central takes 23 minutes on the Tsuen Wan line and covers almost double the distance (12.5 kilometres), with 10 stops. The train is waiting on arrival at the MTR station; it is immaculately clean and very quiet, with about 60 per cent occupancy at this mid-morning hour. The price is HK$12.50 for a single adult journey using an Octopus card.

Back in London, the return journey from Tufnell Park to Tottenham Court Road on Route 134 (a modern double decker replete with video information screen) via Kentish Town and Camden is surprisingly pleasant, supporting Davis' view that the city's bus system has improved. Progress is fairly swift - we cover the 6.9 kilometres in just under 20 minutes with little congestion. The single adult fare with an Oyster card is £1.40.

The return journey from KMB headquarters to the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui on Route 6 is 12.2 kilometres. Even with an unusually long wait of nearly nine minutes for the bus to arrive, the journey takes 23 minutes, and costs a mere HK$4.60 .

It's hardly a scientific study but still probably enough to suggest that, although Hong Kong's public transport may not be 100 per cent perfect, there is little to be learned from that of London, it's underground system in particular. Hong Kong's system is cheaper, cleaner, safer and operated by private-sector companies that create jobs and pay tax on their profits and royalties to the government on their franchise earnings.

While KMB is only one part of an impressive public-transport network, the company's 80th anniversary should give Hongkongers a valid excuse to celebrate something the city does very well indeed.

Other international destinations flaunt eco-tourism, cultural tourism … even sex tourism, if not officially. With the new Maritime Museum, Star Ferry, the Peak Tram as well as the more prosaic (but well-loved) ways of getting around the city, what are the chances of the Hong Kong Tourism Board promoting transport tourism? 

 

The fare sex

Leung Wai-yu (right), 65, obtained her driver's license as soon as she turned 18. Little did she know then that she would make a career out of driving double-decker buses.

KMB hired Leung in 1989 as one of its first batch of 12 female bus captains. She spent the next 19 years driving Route 238M, which runs from Tsuen Wan railway station to the town's Riviera Gardens residential estate.

Leung had been a housewife but, with her son having entered secondary school, she was feeling restless and responded to a KMB ad recruiting female drivers.

At the time, bus terminals didn't even have separate toilets for female staff.

"It would be a little awkward - I'd walk in and there would be a man," she recalls.

She insists she rarely encountered much in the way of sexism from either colleagues or passengers throughout her career, but there was the occasional insult that left an impression.

"A passenger thought I was driving too slowly and he was in a rush to get home," she says. "He asked me why I was holding a steering wheel and why didn't I go home and hold a frying pan."

Leung kept her calm and refused to respond - and such restraint paid off in 2007, when she was rewarded for five years of accident-free driving.

Leung - who has retired but maintains good friendships with many of her former colleagues, though mainly other female captains - says male bus captains often behaved gallantly: "Sometimes [they] would turn on their stop light and block the traffic behind, so I could pass."

Driving the same route for so long, Leung had a unique view of the cycle of life.

"I would see newlyweds who have kids; and soon, I'd see their kids in secondary school," she says. "And some old people would say good morning to me but I wouldn't see them for a while. I'd find out from other passengers that they had passed away."

KMB currently has 465 female bus captains, accounting for only 5.8 per cent of it total number of drivers: 7,958.  Jennifer Cheng

 

 

Playing for kicks

For four decades, KMB was known for more than just its bus services - the company gave its name to an amateur football club that twice were champions of the Hong Kong First Division, in 1954 and 1967.

The now-defunct Kowloon Motor Bus football team began competing in 1947, and in the 1950s had a famous rivalry with South China, traditionally one of the city's strongest teams. Perhaps in recognition of its prowess, KMB were nicknamed "Atomic Bus".

KMB gave men who played in the team jobs in the department responsible for maintaining rubber and plastic fixtures and fittings on the buses. Others within the company who showed footballing talent could break into the side.

The team eventually folded in 1981, but KMB employee Cheung Kwok-kung, 65, retains fond memories of being a volunteer assistant manager. Cheung - who now works in the engineering department - would monitor training sessions (often held at 6.30am) and keep a register of those who attended.

"Considering that we were an amateur team, it was quite impressive that we made it to the First Division, with professional teams," says Cheung, proudly. "I wasn't good enough to play, but I love watching football and getting involved."

When KMB won both the Second Division title and the FA (Lower Division) Cup in the 1975-76 season, the team, including Cheung, were rewarded by the company with a holiday in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cheung, who has been working at KMB for 46 years - becoming its longest serving employee in the process - is set to retire this year.  Jennifer Cheng

 

 

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