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Hong Kong high-speed rail

Sudden halt and power cut hit debut-day high-speed train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong

Good reviews for historic 19-minute journey to neighbouring city, but travellers report border checks slower than expected

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 10:59am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 11:21pm

A sudden halt and power failure on a train to Hong Kong was one of many debut-day blips for the city’s new high-speed rail line.

And while the first high-speed passenger service from West Kowloon to Shenzhen North on Sunday provided a smooth ride, passengers had mixed feelings about organisation at the station.

Fuxing Express train G6507 came to an unexpected stop between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It had earlier come from Guangzhou South station.

It pulled up suddenly at about 11.21am – 19 minutes after its departure from Shenzhen – and sat in the darkness of a tunnel for eight minutes. The air conditioners, some lights, and the electrical seats had no power.

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The halt was so fast that passengers felt uncomfortable and some young children started to cry.

There was no announcement or explanation from the captain or cabin crew, though staff were seen walking hastily to and from the driver’s cabin. Asked what had happened and where the train was after power resumed at about 11.29am, a captain said he had to wait for a report from the driver.

The train arrived at West Kowloon at 11.36am, about 15 minutes behind schedule.

Earlier in the day, the historic first ever high-speed passenger train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen arrived on time, 19 minutes after its 7am departure, after clocking a maximum speed of 200km/h.

Some passengers said the ride was stable and speedy. But others said immigration checks at the Hong Kong station were slower than expected, some blaming what they said were unnecessary crowd control measures.

Under the so-called co-location arrangement, an area of 105,000 square meters inside West Kowloon station is zoned as the mainland port area, under the full jurisdiction of mainland Chinese officials.

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“The government said the co-location arrangement here is similar to what has been done at the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint [at Hong Kong’s border with Shenzhen]. Then, it should be equally speedy, instead of more complicated,” retiree Leung Shing, 72, said.

Leung was the first Hongkonger in line, other than media, when tickets for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link went on sale on two weeks ago.

He got up at 2am at his home in Fanling to catch the first ride to Shenzhen on Sunday.

After attending the brief launch ceremony at 5am, Leung waited another hour to be allowed to scan his ticket and get to the departure hall on level B2 for security checks. Right behind the ticket readers – similar to those set up in MTR stations across the city – were at least 17 gate-shaped metal detectors and 24 X-ray machines for security checks.

Though it took less than 10 minutes to finish the examinations of tickets, people and luggage, hundreds of passengers were stopped to line up again in front of the escalators to the immigration counters on level B3, for about 20 minutes. There were 34 manual counters and 29 electronic lanes set up by the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

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At least 12 surveillance cameras hung from the ceiling behind the mainland-Hong Kong border, a short walk from the Hong Kong customs checkpoint. About 100 mainland officers – in the blue uniforms of public security, and white uniforms of the customs department – and more surveillance cameras were waiting just beyond the border. Behind the mainland immigration counters, only two X-ray machines were there to screen carry-on luggage.

It took about 20 minutes from showing tickets to reaching the boarding gate. The MTR Corp had urged passengers to get to the station at least 45 minutes before their departure time.

“At the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint, there is no such complicated security check and passengers won’t be asked to wait until they are allowed to take the next step [of customs check],” Leung said.

“If the government said the co-location arrangements are the same, it should be equally speedy.”

Welcoming passengers abroad was MTR Corp CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen, and a uniformed mainland officer, who conducted his first and only patrol within five minutes of departure.

On board the Vibrant Express – the MTR Corp’s train on the line – passengers were at first curious about the interior, busy taking photos and videos, and later seemed relaxed on the short ride to neighbouring Shenzhen.

Kinsley Ng Kwan-luff, 10, said the express rail link was better than the inter-city train services on the mainland, called Hexie.

Ng said he learned about the central government’s “Greater Bay Area” plan on the news, and that it consisted of Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province, forming an IT-led economic zone. “I think the train is fast and nice, and better than the Hexie high-speed train [between Shenzhen and Guangzhou],” Ng said.

Another passenger, surnamed Kwok, 55, said his seat was comfortable and he would have some dim sum in Shenzhen before taking a ride back to Hong Kong.

Waiting for the passengers from Hong Kong on the platform, Liu Guangfu, a Communist Party branch chief at Shenzhen North Station, said more than 1,000 staff were to work from 5am for the special occasion.

“All 20 rails in our station can be used for cross-border trains,” he said.

Liu called on passengers to buy tickets at the counter with cash, because the high-speed rail networks in Hong Kong and on the mainland used two separate ticketing systems. “The information department of the China Railway Corporation has been working on ways to connect the two systems,” Liu said.

Currently, passengers who buy tickets online from the MTR Corp must have their tickets printed in Hong Kong. People who buy from 12306, an online platform operated by the China Railway Corp, can print them at any high-speed rail station on the mainland or at the West Kowloon station.

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A Shenzhen resident surnamed Yu, 28, had a group photo with her husband and mother in front of a backdrop specially made for the line’s opening day in the departure hall of Shenzhen North station, before heading to the gate.

The family of three, living in the same district as the station, bought three pairs of round-trip tickets online the day before, to give the mother her first day trip to Hong Kong.

“We didn't mean to catch the opening day. We just happened to find the choice of high-speed rail available,” Yu said.

She said she usually took a taxi or a bus to Lo Wu and went to urban Hong Kong by subway. “The high-speed train is much faster and the cost is generally the same [as my usual way of travelling],” Yu said. “I think I will take the high-speed rail more in future.”

Before the Post talked to Yu, a group of five Hong Kong reporters were stopped by a station worker when they tried to speak to another passenger, who was travelling to Hong Kong with her husband.

The worker claimed to be a member of the station’s security department and asked for the reporters’ press passes. While taking photos of the reporters’ cards with his mobile phone, he said: “You are not allowed to do interviews here if you don't have a permit from the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong. This is what our regulations stipulate.”

Asked if he had received any specific orders from his superiors, and how many Hong Kong reporters he had checked for such a permit, the worker refused to answer and soon left.