With Hong Kong's population set to break through the 7 million barrier this year, Tim Runnacles* reports on progress on a raft of expansion projects. The government has confirmed plans for partial privatisation of metro operator MTR Corp, but further rail proposals await the publication of the second Railway Development Study

T V Runnacles is an independent consultant based in Hong Kong. He advised MTR Corp on the design of the Airport Railway interchanges, and has recently assisted the HKSAR government's Transport Department on MTR privatisation and the potential to upgrade Hongkong Tramways.

THIS YEAR the population of China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will pass 7 million, crammed into an area of 1097 km2, of which only 16·3% is developed. Despite the current recession, the region remains prosperous, putting considerable demand on the transport network. With a high population density, most people live in flats. Car parking spaces are prohibitively expensive, and with 18 people for every private car, most trips are inevitably made by public transport.

During 1999 this amounted to a daily average of 9·34 million trips (excluding taxis). Rail accounted for 37·3%, or 3·48 million trips a day, compared to 42·4% for the various bus franchises.

Although Hong Kong has been part of China since June 30 1997, a boundary remains between the SAR and neighbouring Shenzhen. The region's railways still reflect British influence: the main line network is independent of the neighbouring Guangshen Railway Administration, light rail vehicles are left-hand running, and Hongkong Tramways still boasts the world's only all-double-deck tram fleet.

Within the region, four rail operators run five networks (Table I). Largest by both length and passenger volume is the Mass Transit Railway. MTR Corp runs three 'Urban Lines', plus the Airport Railway, on which Tung Chung and Airport Express services largely share tracks. Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp operates an intensive electric suburban service on its main line, now known as East Rail, and a stand-alone LRT network in the north-western New Territories. On Hong Kong Island are the famous street tramway and the Peak Tram, which is a steep-grade funicular. There is also an automated rubber-tyred peoplemover at Chek Lap Kok airport.

The railways continue to evolve. KCRC completed the refurbishment of its East Rail EMU fleet in late 1999, following the commissioning of Automatic Train Protection in August 1998. The MTR is also refurbishing its fleet, and completed the conversion of its Urban Lines to Sacem train control in 1998. Following their success on the Airport Railway, platform screen doors are to be retrofitted on the Urban Lines, starting with major Tsuen Wan line stations next November. MTR is also planning to test driverless operation on the future Tseung Kwan O line, at first just for positioning moves without passengers.

More prosaically, advertising on MTR trains has invaded seats, windows, grab poles and even plastered complete train exteriors. Simultaneously, tram advertising contracts have collapsed and two-thirds of the once-colourful fleet is back in the corporate green livery.

The greatest change is the forthcoming privatisation of MTRC. In the early hours of February 24 2000, legislators agreed to the partial privatisation of what will be known as the 'MTR Corporation Limited'. Although the government will retain a majority shareholding, it is expected that an initial public offering will be made in the autumn. Despite attempts by some legislators to change the status quo, the new company will retain its autonomy to set fares and the right to develop property over railway land.

KCR expansion continues

The last addition to the rail network was the Airport Railway opened in 1998 (RG 6.98 p397). However, both government-owned corporations have expansion projects in hand. KCRC is currently extending its East Rail line, building the stand-alone West Rail and extending the LRT. MTRC is progressing with its Tseung Kwan O extension and the Quarry Bay Congestion Relief Works.

Historically, East Rail is the only part of Hong Kong's rail network which has shrunk: the narrow-gauge Shau Tau Kok branch closed in 1928; the Kowloon terminus was cut back from Tsim Sha Tsui to Hung Hom in 1975; and a seldom-used 1 km branch line to Wo Hop Shek Cemetery was closed in 1983. But now East Rail is expanding again. In 1998 the government invited KCRC to undertake detailed design of extensions to Ma On Shan and Tsim Sha Tsui. Subsequently a second link to the regional boundary was also agreed.

Due to be completed in mid-2004, the Ma On Shan branch will connect Tai Wai station with a suburban settlement for 200000 people. The route was planned in the 1980s as light rail, which explains its seven closely-spaced intermediate stations along the 11·4 km line. Notions of involving the private sector yielded to the logic of making it an East Rail branch. The line will initially be worked by four-car trains, although the stations are designed for eight.

KCR's 1975 retrenchment from Kowloon Point was a mixed blessing. Although Hung Hom is more spacious, it is remote from Tsim Sha Tsui's commercial heart, the MTR and ferries to Central. As early as 1976 proposals were mooted to re-extend to Tsim Sha Tsui - albeit in tunnel rather than along the original trackbed, which had been sold to developers. After 25 years, the re-extension is nearing realisation: the 1·5 km branch to East Tsim Sha Tsui will open in 2004. A pedestrian subway will link the new terminus with Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station.

Burgeoning cross-boundary travel has justified a second passenger railway to the Shenzhen border; the Lok Ma Chau Spur is also planned to open in 2004. This 7·4 km branch will curve westward from East Rail just north of Sheung Shui. A walkway will link Lok Ma Chau with Huanggang station on the proposed Shenzhen Metro, which should open the same year.

However, these three East Rail extensions are dwarfed by the HK$51·7bn West Rail project. Although managed by KCRC, this is being built as a stand-alone 30·5 km passenger railway between Nam Cheong in West Kowloon and Tuen Mun. Opening in December 2003, West Rail will end the Tuen Mun-Tin Shui Wai-Yuen Long conurbation's isolation from the heavy rail network. West Rail is currently Hong Kong's largest civil engineering project. Only 5·6 km will be on the surface, with another 13·4 km on viaduct and 11·5 km in tunnel. The 5·5 km Tai Lam bore will be Hong Kong's longest transport tunnel.

West Rail will interchange with MTR's Tung Chung line at the new Nam Cheong station, and with the Tsuen Wan line at Mei Foo. There will also be LRT interchanges at Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai, Siu Hong and Tuen Mun. West Rail will have its own 32·5ha depot south of Kam Sheung Road.

Initially West Rail will be worked by seven-car EMUs every 3min, but the ultimate aim is nine-car trains every 2min. To be supplied by the Itochu-Kinki-Kawasaki consortium, the trains will have full-depth skirts for noise suppression. Environmental issues have also heavily influenced the design of the civil engineering works.

To complement West Rail, the LRT network will grow by 2003. The original plan for a loop around Tin Shui Wai will be fulfilled, and a second loop will circle the 'Reserve Zone' north west of the town. In Tuen Mun the San Fat stop and adjacent tracks and junctions will be elevated to provide interchange with West Rail's terminus. The budget provides for extra LRVs, but these have not yet been ordered.

Extending the MTR

On the eastern side of Kowloon, the new town of Tseung Kwan O occupies land reclaimed from Junk Bay. An MTR extension to serve this area was a high priority in the government's 1994 Railway Development Strategy. But it was not until 1996 that approval was given to proceed with detailed design, leading to the award of the first contract in November 1998.

The Tseung Kwan O Extension will see the diversion of the existing Kwun Tong line from Lam Tin via Yau Tong to a terminus at Tiu Keng Leng. The outer end of the KTL including the Eastern Harbour Crossing will be served by a new Tseung Kwan O Line, which will diverge from the northern end of the EHC and run via Yau Tong to Tseung Kwan O. East of here, the line will split into a northern branch to Po Lam and a southern branch to the depot and a new station in 'Area 86'.

Adding 13 route-km to the MTR network, the TKE is expected to open in December 2002, although passenger services to Area 86 will not start until residents move in. To work the line, a fleet of 13 eight-car trains has been ordered from Hyundai.

An extension is also under way beyond the existing KTL terminus at Quarry Bay, which will in future be part of the Tseung Kwan O line. The present KTL-Island line interchange at Quarry Bay involves long walks along congested passageways, so the KTL is being extended parallel to the Island line to a new interchange at North Point station. Known as the 'Quarry Bay Congestion Relief Works', the twin 1·75 km tunnels should be completed later this year.

Trams in trouble

1998 and 1999 were difficult years for all rail operators, as an economic recession and aggressive competition from swarms of new luxury franchised buses dented ridership trends. Hardest hit was Hongkong Tramways, whose traffic dropped by 30% in just six years. HKT's plight was exacerbated by several accidents in 1995-96 which precipitated a Safety & Service Improvement Programme under which all trams are being rewired and fitted with Siemens electronic programmable logic controllers.

But the programme is doing nothing to help trams compete with buses: the trams remain slow and their lack of air-conditioning is a serious disadvantage. A low-fares tradition has become a political imperative but starves HKT of investment funds: plans for a modern four-axle tram (RG 7.97 p463) abruptly ended when the prototype was scrapped without ever leaving the depot. Extension plans to serve three new reclamations collapsed when the government decided on a policy not to extend the tramway. Even though HKT still carries more passengers on a single route than any other tramway in the world, its future is not clear. Government remedies for severe environmental pollution apparently favour clean-diesel or trolleybuses, but with buses already saturating kerbside capacity it is impossible to envisage the Island's north shore without some form of tram service.

The Peak Tram has also lost 25% of its traffic in the last four years, largely due a sharp drop in tourism. Plans to buy larger but lighter cars have consequently been put on hold until traffic returns to former levels.

Future developments

Although the two big railway corp-orations have their own visions for expansion, the decisions remain a matter for government policy. All of the current expansion schemes were laid down in principle in the region's 1994 Railway Development Strategy. To set the markers for future expansion, work started in 1998 on a Second Railway Development Study. RDS-2 was due to be completed by the end of 1999, but has over-run its anticipated schedule, and the government remains tight-lipped about its recommendations. Nevertheless, some hints about the direction of strategic thinking have emerged with the Third Comp-rehensive Transport Study, published last October (RG12.99 p760).

CTS-3 recognises that railways will remain the backbone of Hong Kong's passenger transport provision. For the years up to 2016 it grouped potential rail developments into three categories: