A second major MTR project could be coming off the rails with revelations that an archaeological discovery on the Sha Tin-Central rail link may mean work will not be completed on schedule, resulting in a million-dollar loss for every day of the delay.
The remarks by Wong Wai-kwong, the Highways Department's senior engineer responsible for the MTR's construction of the link, came as he was explaining the impact on the scheduled 2018 completion date after Song dynasty-era relics were uncovered on the Ma Tau Wai section. The archaeological study started in late 2012 and has since grown in importance.
The uncertainty over the link comes amid claims of a cover-up over the two-year delay of the high-speed cross-border railway.
"Subjectively speaking, we still hope the Sha Tin-Central link can be completed on schedule. But … it depends on the archaeological work," Wong told Kowloon City Council.
The MTR had initially scheduled for the archaeological study to be finished by late last year. But discovery of at least 1,000 boxes of relics called "general finds", 3,700 items known as "special find" and 239 structures dating back to as far as the Song era (960-1279) has prompted the Antiquities and Monument Office to require the excavation area to be extended twice.
Part of the works near To Kwa Wan station has been halted since December to make way for the archaeological study.
The planned To Kwa Wan station, the two tunnels connecting To Kwa Wan and Ho Man Tin stations and the launching shaft built for construction of the tunnels, were affected, Wong said.
"Works for the station can be relatively more easily accelerated by deploying more manpower. But for tunnel boring … we are not so optimistic," Wong told councillors.
Citing contract confidentiality, he declined to give a full estimate of the financial loss caused by a delay. But he said the government would have to pay the contractor millions of dollars in penalties each day.
Greg Wong Chak-yan, a former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers who worked for the MTR in the 1970s and 1980s, and Hung Wing-tat of Polytechnic University's department of civil and structural engineering, both said it was technically viable to accelerate works by adjusting the position of the launching shaft.
"There are four years to go before the scheduled completion. I believe there is still room for the MTR to complete the project on time," Hung said. "The key is whether it can find a place to move the shaft."
Both the Highways Department and the MTR said they had no plan to realign the railway.
"We can say that there is no room to move the tunnel," said Kelvin Wu Ka-lun, senior liaison engineer of the MTR.
Councillor Yeung Chun-yu urged the government and the MTR to ensure the relics were preserved and not just focus on the pace of construction. "I hope a win-win situation can be attained," he said. "Residents hope the link will commence service on schedule, but heritage should also be properly protected."