The cost of building the already delayed and over-budget high-speed rail link to Guangzhou is likely to surge to a whopping HK$85 billion - 30 per cent more than the original HK$65 billion budget, legislator and former railway boss Michael Tien Puk-sun warned yesterday. The New People's Party lawmaker, who chairs the Legislative Council's transport panel, said he had learned the estimate through "various channels", including contractors and MTR insiders. He said neither the MTR Corporation nor the government would want to bear the extra cost. That raised the possibility of the corporation and its majority shareholder, the government, ending up in court. The MTR Corporation confirmed in its annual report earlier this month that the cost of the Express Rail Link could be adjusted "significantly" upward, without giving specific figures. News broke in April last year that the link, originally scheduled to open this year, would not be ready until at least 2017. The railway operator said after that announcement that the construction cost would snowball to HK$71.5 billion, 10 per cent more than the initial HK$65 billion budget. It had blamed difficult ground conditions and problems with tunnel boring for the delay. The fiasco led to the early departure of MTR chief executive Jay Walder in August. The American was replaced by Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen. "The MTR is now using money to catch up and have the link open in 2017. If no extra money is used, the link may not open even in 2018," said Tien, adding that contingency funding was running out. The best and only way out for the government and the MTR to "defuse the political time bomb" would be to ask contractors to absorb most of the costs, Tien said. "They [contractors] will be sacrificing for the short term, because there will be more rail projects in the future, which would provide a stable business environment," said Tien, who previously led railway operator KCR, which was merged into the MTR in 2007. The government has already ordered another, more comprehensive review of the project and the cost overruns that would also factor in risk allowances. The review is due to be completed this quarter and a report will be submitted to the MTR board and the government. The two sides are then expected to discuss how to settle the budget. A Transport Bureau spokesman said: "The government will make the outcome known to the public as early as possible." The spokesman said the administration would assess the MTR's obligations regarding project implementation, construction delays and cost overruns. The government reserved all rights to pursue the guarantees and obligations made by the MTR, he added. Dr Hung Wing-tat, a Polytechnic University transport engineering expert, believed the HK$85 billion price tag put forward by Tien was likely to prove "accurate". "The new CEO may not want to review the estimate again, and the MTR may want to seek more funds in one go rather than going back to Legco for another time," he said, adding that the railway operator had to push on with work as the mega-project was close to 70 per cent complete. "When you are rushing against time, you have to put more workers and machines to work, otherwise you can't have it open in 2017."