‘Full marks’ for Hong Kong high-speed train's maiden cross-border voyage, though some warn real test is yet to come
City and mainland leaders praise ‘smooth’ and ‘comfortable’ ride as rail link prepares to open doors to thousands of commuters
Hong Kong’s first high-speed train got off to a smooth start on Saturday as it took leaders from the city and the mainland across the border, with one lawmaker giving it 100 marks, although he warned that the real test would come the next day, when doors opened to the public.
After officiating the opening ceremony at the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link’s West Kowloon terminus, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui, along with several hundred guests – including mainland officials and pro-establishment politicians – embarked on a 43-minute ride to Guangzhou South station.
“It was very quiet, like I was on a plane,” Roundtable lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said, noting how the train was travelling at up to 300km/h between Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
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His one complaint was the lack of luggage space, though he still gave the experience a high score.
“Today, to be frank, of course I’d give them 100 marks, but we’ll have to see about tomorrow,” Tien said. The HK$84.4 billion (US$11.3 billion) rail link’s first train for public travellers is set to leave for Shenzhen North station at 7am, with thousands of commuters expected to use the service daily.
Pro-Beijing lawyer Maggie Chan Man-ki sent a video to the media featuring some of the 36 delegates representing the city in the National People's Congress on-board the “Vibrant Express”.
“Co-location makes it convenient for the masses! Yeah!” the group chanted in unison, punctuating each line with a thumbs up.
Those in the clip included former constitutional and mainland affairs minister Raymond Tam Chi-yuen; former Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong chairman Tam Yiu-chung; former World Health Organisation director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun; and singer-turned-businesswoman Cally Kwong Mei-wan.
Former Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman said the rail link was “going to change Hong Kong in a big way”.
“People will really enjoy it – it was 42 minutes to Guangzhou, you can go there for lunch and come back again,” he said.
Beijing loyalist Maria Tam Wai-chu said it took five minutes to go through the joint checkpoints. Passengers at the West Kowloon terminus will clear both Hong Kong and mainland immigration in one sitting.
Despite the quick turnaround, Tam noted that traffic at the terminus on Saturday was not at “full capacity”.
“I hope the service [level] can be maintained,” she said.
Former minister Raymond Tam said the ride was “very comfortable, very convenient and reliable”.
Although he was in second class, he said, it was still “very spacious”, and there was free Wi-fi in the carriage.
While some pro-democracy lawmakers had been invited to the Saturday ceremony, all declined to attend.
After returning to Hong Kong, Lam told the media that the non-stop journey to Guangzhou South took 43 minutes and called the experience “historic”.
“This historic moment is not only important to Hong Kong’s railway but also a major breakthrough for our cross-border infrastructure.”
On the way back, Lam said, the train stopped at Futian station in Shenzhen to drop off some mainland guests, taking 48 minutes to return to the city.
But the chief executive ruled out taking the express rail to Beijing for work trips in the near future.
“If I have enough time I am very willing to take the express rail to Beijing, but I am afraid every time I leave [Hong Kong], it is on a tight schedule, so long-haul rides [on the express rail] might not be suitable,” Lam said.
It was announced earlier that there would be only one train leaving from Hong Kong for Beijing per day, and the journey would take close to nine hours and cost HK$1,239.
So far, according to the rail link’s online ticketing system, most rides on Sunday are not sold out.
Asked if sales had been poorer than expected, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said that more than 230,000 tickets had been sold so far.
“For long-haul journeys, with the need to plan ahead, the ticket sales are ideal,” he said.
For short distance trips, Chan continued, he expected passengers to purchase tickets just before setting off, “so the ticket sales [for short haul trips] do not reflect the real demand.”
MTR Corporation chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang said he expected ticket sales to grow after more people tried the service.
He added that the West Kowloon terminus would be open to the public at 5am on Sunday, and that customs officers would open the checkpoints 15 minutes earlier than usual, at 6.15am.
“When a new service commences, there may be some teething issues, I hope … people can understand,” Ma said.
Various concerns had surfaced in the weeks leading up to the start of operations, including ticketing hiccups and concerns over baggage restrictions.
On the subject of luggage space, lawmaker Tien said: “One passenger would easily fill up the [overhead] area, and then at the end of the compartment there was a little rack that was definitely not enough.”
Tien said he had previously written to the National People’s Congress about the issue, but they were reluctant to reduce the number of seats to make space for baggage because it “would slow down the mass transportation efficiency tremendously”.
He said he did not understand why a few more cars could not be added.
“If you look at high-speed rail in Europe, various parts of the world, they actually have a lot more space,” Tien said.
The opening of the express rail link comes eight years and eight months after funding was approved by the Legislative Council in January 2010.
While the original completion date was set for 2015, the project was hit by delays, and construction costs grew from HK$66.9 billion to HK$88.4 billion.
The railway was also at the centre of a political battle between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps over its controversial joint checkpoint arrangement, which involves having 800 mainland officers stationed daily in a special port area at the West Kowloon terminus to enforce national laws.
Critics, including legal experts from the Hong Kong Bar Association, said the arrangement was not compatible with Article 18 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, which states that national laws shall not be applied in Hong Kong, apart from those listed in the third annex of the law that are limited to defence and foreign affairs.
The government, however, said the arrangement was legal, as it was approved by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee – China’s top legislative body.
To make way for the project, more than 100 residents from Choi Yuen Chuen, a farming village in Yuen Long, had to be relocated.