Rail-link activists 2, government 0

Anita Lam

Opponents of the HK$66.9 billion Hong Kong-Guangzhou express rail project succeeded in blocking for a second time a vote to approve funding for the line last night, triggering a deafening victory roar from thousands of demonstrators ringing the Legislative Council building.

League of Social Democrat lawmakers had promised drama and repeated tabling of motions to delay a vote, but in the end the meeting of Legco's Finance Committee was adjourned to next Friday because lawmakers used up the six hours allotted for debate on the project by asking a plethora of questions.

Lawmakers eager to approve funding for the 26 kilometre line criticised pan-democratic lawmakers for deliberately repeating questions as a delaying tactic.

Tam Yiu-chung, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, sought to fix a schedule for a fresh debate and vote and proposed next time the meeting continue indefinitely until a vote could be taken. But pan-democrats, who asked most of the questions, opposed him, saying he hoped to wait until they fell silent from exhaustion, then push the measure through.

In the last of the three sessions of yesterday's meeting, all but one of the 16 questions were put by pan-democrats - whose questions covered potential disruptions to traffic during the line's construction, compensation for affected property owners and the link's cost-effectiveness if its terminus was moved from West Kowloon to Kam Sheung Road in the New Territories, as a group of engineering professionals has proposed.

At one point, a war of words broke out between Paul Tse Wai-chun of the tourism sector - one of the beneficiaries of a new high-speed line - and the Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah. Tse accused the latter of masked his delaying tactics by asking the same question several times using different words.

Yesterday's meeting ended at 10.45pm, after more than six hours, without fixing a time to resume debate next Friday. Lawmakers could not agree how many hours should be scheduled for the debate.

Pan-democratic lawmakers - who raised most of the 60 questions in the chamber - received a hero's welcome from the crowd when they walked out of the Legco building shortly before 11pm. Organisers claimed 8,000 took part in the protest. Police put the crowd at 1,300.

Even if they were to meet for six hours a day for two straight days, as some lawmakers suggested, it is still unclear whether the issue can be resolved. Albert Chan Wai-yip of the League of Social Democrats said he and his colleagues would save the 30 motions they failed to raise yesterday for the next meeting, while independent democrat Cyd Ho Sau-lan said she planned to propose an adjournment of the next meeting for the public to study a transport impact assessment report on West Kowloon.

Lawmakers who believe the high-speed rail line will bring big economic benefits to Hong Kong said it was disappointing that discussion in the council had become so irrational and irresponsible.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who supports the project, proposed that lawmakers opposed to it file their questions in writing to save time, but Albert Chan said if they did that they would follow up the written questions with oral ones they will still follow up their written questions with oral questions.

The second delay to the vote on the project's funding dealt the government's authority a fresh blow. Opponents of the line are likely to turn out in greater numbers next Friday.

The government considers the high-speed rail line the most important infrastructure project since the construction of the airport and related infrastructure in the lead-up to the handover. It is desperate to get work started soon. Even if work is completed by 2015 as scheduled, that will still be two years after the rest of the high-speed line to Beijing with which it will link up.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng said she hoped lawmakers could approve the funding in the next meeting, since the project was of utmost importance to Hong Kong's economy.

'We fully respect lawmakers' right to ask questions, it is their responsibility to assess the funding. But on the other hand, this project has had very thorough discussion over the past years,' Cheng said.