The much-heralded HK$67 billion high-speed railway linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou - the most expensive ever built per kilometre - has been delayed by up to two years due to "unforeseen difficulties".
MTR chiefs yesterday blamed the delay - which could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars - on damage to a tunnel boring machine suffered during last month's heavy rain and problems with the construction of the West Kowloon terminus at the Hong Kong end of the 26-kilometre underground link.
Transport secretary Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung - an MTR board member - insisted he only learned of the extent of the delay at the weekend and was "totally caught by surprise".
The MTR said the delays meant construction would not be finished until 2016, with services starting in 2017. When announced, the project was to be finished next year.
Last night, critics attacked the MTR and the government for a lack of transparency.
MTR network projects director Chew Tai-chong said last month's storm had flooded a construction site near Tsat Sing Kong and Tai Kong Po in Yuen Long. The tunnel boring machine was seriously damaged and an investigation was looking into whether to repair it or to excavate the remaining tunnel by other means. Either way, construction of that part of the project would be prolonged by nine months, Chew said.
"We recognise the government has entrusted the management of this project to us and we are very sorry to have to bring forth this revised schedule," he said.
Chew said the MTR had spent two weeks pumping water from the tunnel, and had realised the extent of the problem only recently. He also attributed the delay to complicated conditions at West Kowloon and complex geology at the cross-border section beneath a protected wetland.
Antonio Choi Fung-chung, MTR general manager for the project, said it had been difficult for contractors to survey ground conditions at the terminus before construction started because of the facilities - such as a golf driving range - in the area, and busy traffic on Jordan Road. That, together with the many underground cables, had contributed to many unforeseen situations.
The MTR refused to disclose the length of the construction delay at the terminus or the extra costs. Choi and Chew said only that the additional costs would be covered by a HK$4.4 billion contingency fund. There was also no full explanation of the delay beyond the nine months caused by the damaged boring machine.
Hints of a delay emerged in recent months, with officials changing their line to saying the project would be completed next year and would open in 2016.
Cheung said that at the end of last year, the MTR was still telling the government the line would open in 2015.
"Obviously I felt very disappointed and deeply concerned about the delay," he said.
Additional reporting by Gary Cheung
Construction started in January 2010; initial completion date was next year; now delayed by as much as two years
26-kilometre underground line with a new West Kowloon terminus
HK$67 billion project has a HK$4.4 billion contingency fund built in for 'unforeseeable situations'