A rough ride on train of frustration

With problems plaguing the HK$67 billion high-speed cross-border railway, critics wonder if it ever was as feasible as originally proposed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 6:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 6:33am

The journey to build the HK$67 billion high-speed cross-border railway has never been smooth.

The MTR Corporation's Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link was supposed to ferry 99,000 passengers daily to and from the border, reducing crowding on the East Rail line and cutting in half the 100-minute journey from city to mainland. Unfortunately, the wait for that quick trip drags on.

Before a shovel so much as scratched the earth, the project was mired in controversy.

Planners and officials argued about where to put the terminus. There were protests over the eviction of village residents in the New Territories. On April 15 the publicly traded transit company announced that the opening would be delayed by two years, to 2017. That delay will likely make the world's most costly railway project by length even more expensive.

The railway was supposed to launch next year, but now the public will have to wait.

The railway company said on April 15 that the delay was caused after heavy March rains damaged a tunnel boring machine in Yuen Long, flooding a construction site. In addition, crews have had trouble digging through rock and boulders at the West Kowloon terminus. Crews also have encountered marble caverns beneath a protected wetlands area near the border, meaning work must proceed with great care.

MTR said the extra costs would be absorbed by a HK$5.4 billion contingency fund set aside from the project's budget.

Lawmakers are considering launching an investigation into the delay if the administration and the MTR fail to provide details. Lawmakers said they would invoke the Legislative Council Powers and Privileges Ordinance, which would allow Legco to summon witnesses and inspect documents.

A confidential MTR document seen by the South China Morning Post shows that the delay could last more than two years, and the budget may not meet all expenses.

The PowerPoint document labelled "secret" and adorned with the MTR logo, bears the title "Forecast Outturn Cost Position of XRL project as of March 2014". It said the railway work alone was estimated to cost as much as HK$69.8 billion as of January. That figure did not include costs of the non-railway construction.

When the project was proposed to the Legislative Council in 2009, HK$11.8billion of the budget was reserved for items such as footbridges and subways connecting nearby roads to the stations.

The PowerPoint document, prepared by MTR staff to brief the company's management about the project shows construction may not be finished until August 2017, further postponing the link's opening, a source close to the project said.

The MTR said it would not comment on the document because it "does not know what it is".

When the MTR announced the delay, projects director Chew Tai-chong said, "as you can appreciate, the unforeseen challenges of this project are great.

"We recognise the government has entrusted the management of this project to us and we are sorry to have to bring forth this revised schedule."

The idea to build an express railway linking the city centre to the mainland was first introduced in the Railway Development Strategy 2000.

The MTR suggested linking Hung Hom to the border either through Fanling South or Kam Sheung Road, and said the link could be extended to Central to make it more attractive.

In 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced the cross-border Express Railway Link as one of the 10 major infrastructure projects in his policy address. It was estimated that the 26-kilometre rail line would cost HK$39.5 billion at that time, 60 per cent of the current costs.

As the project gathered momentum, critics started to raise concerns about the price tag. They asked whether construction of the link was indeed urgent, given that trains were already running from Hung Hom to Guangzhou.

Currently the East Rail runs at 100 per cent capacity, shuttling 58,700 passengers an hour during morning peak commuting times, according to MTR data.

Engineers had warned that HK$39.5 billion would not be enough. In 2009 the price had risen to HK$62.5 billion. The Legislative Council later approved funding of HK$66.9 billion.

Engineer Albert Lai Kwong-tak, convener of the good governance non-profit think tank The Professional Commons and a longtime critic of the project, said he had always disagreed with the decision to put the terminus in West Kowloon.

The think tank said terminating trains at Kam Sheung Road in the New Territories would shorten the rail line and cut construction costs by half while avoiding a massive excavation underground.

At that time, the government said changing the route would have defeated the principle of having a high-speed connection between major cities, and that such a change could cause a three-year delay.

The MTR has said in public documents that the Express Rail's path minimised the number of curves that trains travelling at 200km/h must navigate, while limiting disruption to local communities and impact on road traffic.

Construction on the Hong Kong section began in 2010.

Lai said the decision to build the railway link was a political one, so Hong Kong would be more directly connected with the mainland.

"The rushed timetable means a lack of preparation for the construction, and that has led to many problems in the works," he said. "The government at that time didn't want to hear the truth, while the MTR didn't dare to say it: that it was impossible to complete the construction by 2015."

Legco approved the plan with the support of pro-establishment lawmakers in January, 2010, amid a massive protest outside. The then transport chief Eva Cheng and her officials were trapped in the Legco for hours as hundreds of protesters demanded to speak with her and tried to enter the building.

Lai said the government could not have convinced Legco to approve the plan if the MTR had been honest about the difficulties and the lack of time for the project. He said Cheng and the lawmakers who supported the project should be held responsible for the delay today.

Cheng, who retired in 2012, could not be reached for comment for this story.

Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said lawmakers were seeking the government's technical comments that had led them to believe that the project could be finished on time. A member of the Democratic Party filed a complaint with the government ombudsman because the Railway Development Office of the Highways Department had hired a government engineer to oversee the railway's progress.

Wu warned that the scope of the probe would be wide, possibly involving Cheng.

One of the project's most controversial aspects has been its path, which runs through the site of the village of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen in Shek Kong. After the government asked villagers to move from the land, residents staged numerous protests, at one point clashing with police in 2011. The entire railway is designed to run underground, and officials said that the village had to be razed to build tracks to park trains in Shek Kong.

Because the villagers were non-indigenous people, they were not entitled to receive another piece of land where they could rebuild their homes. The government offered eligible villagers up to HK$600,000 in compensation, or HK$500,000 plus a right to buy subsidised housing without a means test. Rural body Heung Yee Kuk helped the villagers to identify another piece of land, and they bought it with the compensation money.

In Sha Tin, villagers from century-old Ngau Tam Mei village complained that construction of the railway was drying up their wells and damaging their houses. They said some houses had tilted and cracks appeared in a retaining wall. A lack of ground water killed fruit plants and fish, the villagers said.

Twelve cases involving wells are confirmed to be related to the project, according to the loss adjuster. Ten cases involving cracks on buildings' walls or floors could be related to the project too.

Some Hongkongers doubted if it was feasible to have a joint immigration checkpoint at West Kowloon. The Basic Law says that, with few exceptions, mainland laws cannot be enforced in Hong Kong, making it difficult to deploy mainland immigration officials in West Kowloon.

Government officials have said they were still discussing the issue with mainland authorities.

Last August, more than 200 workers went on strike at the express railway construction site in Kwai Chung, after they were told to eat their lunch underground and warned their pay would be docked if they were late. An agreement was reached that same day.

Some 100 accidents were reported during construction between May and November last year, two of them fatal. That's in addition to 147 accidents, including one fatality, recorded from the start of construction in 2010 to April last year.