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Hong Kong high-speed rail

After 8 years in the making, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link will open. Here are the issues on its bumpy ride

A faster and more convenient connection to mainland’s vast 25,000km rail network – or a potential white elephant?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 9:02am

The cross-border high-speed rail link connecting Hong Kong to mainland China opens this month, but it has been a bumpy ride for the HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) project, which has seen delays, costs overruns and legal controversy.

On September 23, as the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link welcomes the first of 80,100 commuters expected daily, it will be an opening eight years in the making.

The express link though, no matter how fast, will not have left its ghosts behind – opposition politicians have questioned the cost of the enormous bill on Hongkongers, while other critics wondered whether the project would become a white elephant.

Supporters of the rail link argue passengers now have a faster and more convenient connection to the rest of the mainland’s vast 25,000km rail network.

1. What were the issues involving costs and delays?

Originally, the rail project, dating back to 2008, was estimated to cost HK$39.5 billion and slated to begin service in 2015. By the time the project secured initial public funding in 2010 the price tag had soared to HK$66.9 billion. That figure has now ballooned to HK$84.4 billion. The launch date was also twice delayed because of flooding and unforeseen technical glitches.

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2. What was the upshot?

Anger over the delay resulted in a management shake-up in 2014 at the city’s rail giant, the MTR Corporation. Then CEO Jay Walder and projects director Chew Tai-chong stepped down amid the furore. An internal report criticised the pair for their poor judgment in monitoring the project.

3. What is the joint checkpoint arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus?

The so-called co-location agreement allows travellers to have their documents checked and processed by immigration and customs on both sides of the border under one roof.

A port area of 105,000 square metres has been leased to mainland authorities, who will carry out customs clearance at their end and enforce national laws in the zone. Supporters of the system said the consolidated border clearance for passengers would be more convenient.

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The government said the scheme was similar to the model at Shenzhen Bay Port, where Hong Kong immigration officers operated in a designated area in which local laws were enforced on mainland soil. Travellers there go through immigration counters for both sides in the same building.

4. What was the controversy surrounding the joint checkpoint plan?

Pro-democracy lawmakers and legal experts, including the Hong Kong Bar Association, have repeatedly argued the arrangement contravenes the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

The Basic Law states that no mainland Chinese law shall apply on Hong Kong soil except for those relating to defence, foreign affairs and “other matters outside the limits” of the city’s autonomy.

But on December 27 last year, China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, approved the co-location plan, with Beijing officials saying the decision carried constitutional authority and “cannot be challenged”.

Critics point to the arrangement as yet another sign of the mainland’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms.

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When asked by lawmakers if Hongkongers staging protests in the area would be arrested, local officials only reminded passengers to obey state laws within the area, but also stated that mainland officers had no enforcement powers outside the zone.

5. Is it the link likely to become a white elephant?

On August 23, when officials unveiled details of the operating arrangements, they said the link would be profitable from the day it started running. They expect the rail to carry 80,100 passengers per day while earning a profit of HK$199 million in the fourth quarter of this year.

Critics said the passenger figures seemed inflated, and some suggested the operating agreement was only for 10 years because the MTR Corp was also unsure of the link’s profitability.

But the city’s transport minister Frank Chan Fan argued the aim was “never to recover the capital cost”. Instead, it was about generating economic benefits such as savings in cross-border travelling time and the creation of jobs for society’s long-term development.

6. Any other controversies involving the project?

In 2010, 150 households in Choi Yuen village, Yuen Long, were ordered to move out to make way for the construction of a train depot. Heated protests were held as part of the campaign to save the village.

Veteran activist Bobo Yip Po-lam, who joined the villagers in their protests, said the fight marked a new beginning for social movements in the city as more teenagers started to think about Hong Kong’s future and later joined other campaigns.

She recalled she had only expected a few people to turn up for a protest outside the Legislative Council in 2009, but more than 100 attended.

“The funding request [for the project] was eventually approved. Our bid to derail it failed. But we helped the villagers with their relocation. We could have done a better job but we tried our very best,” she said.

“The rail was built on the sacrifices the Choi Yuen villagers made.”

Additional Reporting by Phila Siu