Rail link risks being a white elephant
Hong Kong has a glowing record when it comes to public works. From cross-harbour bridges to a state-of-the-art airport, we have built showpiece infrastructures that became the envy of the world. Recently, our reputation has been put to the test by the cross-border high-speed railway project. Not only is it hit by massive cost overruns and serious delays, it risks becoming a white elephant, amid growing concerns that a feature pivotal to travel convenience and duration may never be implemented because of legal constraints.
In doubt is the idea of a joint checkpoint. Unlike the existing cross-border through-train, where passengers have to go through immigration and customs separately in Hung Hom and in Guangzhou, it was suggested that the procedures could in future be done within the high-speed railway terminus in West Kowloon. It was hailed as a centrepiece when the HK$65 billion project was tabled for lawmakers' approval in 2010. Five years have passed but the checkpoint has made little progress.
The so-called "one location, two inspections" concept has always been controversial. Law enforcers on the mainland are not allowed to exercise power in the city under the Basic Law. Former transport chief Eva Cheng Yu-wah was coy when repeatedly pressed by Legco on the legal ramifications. She admitted that the facility might not be ready for use initially, adding that there would be fall-back options.
It remains unclear whether high-speed railway passengers ultimately will have to go through immigration and customs clearance on each side of the border like the through-train passengers at present. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying only said the joint checkpoint option had received Beijing's support. But he stopped short of saying how it could be achieved without compromising the Basic Law.
Speed is everything when it comes to travelling by high-speed railway. The promise to whisk passengers to Guangzhou within 48 minutes hinges on the successful implementation of quick cross-border clearance. There are growing signs that the project, which originally planned to link the city with the national high-speed network by this year, will be further delayed beyond 2017, while the cost is also likely to further exceed the revised budget of HK$71.5 billion. Unless effective measures are adopted to contain costs and realise the potential benefits, the project risks becoming a white elephant.