THE government announcement that a railway will be developed to move containers from Kwai Chung all the way to northern China is a sort of victory for Hongkong's terminal operators. After all, they have been lobbying hard for a long time for this development to take place. However, the victory may be rather hollow. The idea of a rail link between Kwai Chung and the Chinese border was first proposed by Hongkong International Terminals 15 years ago, but it was scotched by Hongkong authorities. If the Government had heeded HIT's call at that time, the cost of building the railway would have been minuscule compared with today's prices. The Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp (KCRC) revived the idea three years ago. That attempt too was booted out last May by the then Secretary for Planning, Environment and Land, Graham Barnes, who described it as ''very difficult'' and ''extraordinarily expensive''. Now the railway project has emerged under the Government's Railway Development Study, open for three months' consultation. The snag is that it will be built after 1997 as part of an ambitious $65 billion network planned for the future Special Administrative Region. The future Port Rail Line will run from Kwai Chung to the border to link with a new Beijing-Hongkong railroad. A section of it will go through a Tsuen Wan-Kam Tin tunnel. The cargo rail will be built along an express passenger railway between Shamshuipo and Lowu as an integral part of the ''Western Corridor''. Although the saying is ''better late than never'', it is a shame that Hongkong port - the world's busiest container handler having dealt with nearly eight million 20-foot containers last year - should have such an important piece of infrastructure built almost 20 years too late. Furthermore, the rail project will be part of a bundle of works estimated to cost $23.1 billion at last year's prices and scheduled for completion by 2001. One wonders what the actual bill will be when the project is completed. Leading ports in the world - which handle only a fraction of the territory's container throughput, such as Germany's Bremerhaven and the US port of Baltimore - have good container railway connections to link their facilities with their hinterland. Everywhere, including the mainland, transportation specialists talk about intermodalism. That simply means connecting the process and the network that moves containerised cargo across oceans and land - a blending of ships, trains and trucks to move containers fast and efficiently. As the Chinese economy forges ahead with economic growth forecast at 10.1 per cent this year, a tremendous increase in container traffic is expected through Hongkong. Although the territory is expected to be able to cope with the increase, the job would have been much easier and more efficient with a good container railway connection. Executives in the transport industry agree that the decision by the Hongkong Government to build the container railway terminal is a good one - albeit a little late.