The Modernisation of the British Section of the KCR, 1983 article

IDJ has sent the following article which he has kindly reformatted for inclusion here.

Please note the locations of the images in this version have been changed from those in the original article.


From The Railway Magazine, November 1983.


Before electrification. The covered bridge at Lo Wu, on the China/HK border with one of the twelve GM-pattern diesel-electric locomotives No. 56. Photo: HK Government Information Services

Those who knew the British section of the Kowloon – Canton Railway before its modernisation would scarcely recognise it now. A one-time colonial single-line steam railway, with track-level station platforms, is now a double-track urban rapid-transit system operating multiple-unit trains at 25kV a.c. to very close headways and with a present user of 140,000 a day, steadily increasing. In 1905 the Hong Kong Government agreed with China to build a line from Kowloon to Canton, now called Guangzhou. The British were to lay the track 22 miles to the Shenzhen (Shamchun) River, where the border is, and the Chinese to meet it. It was to be of standard-gauge with a generous loading-gauge of 18 ft.   The British section was ready for traffic by 1910, the Chinese a year later. The nine British stations had passing loops, except at Sheung Shui, and the signalling was conventional manual semaphore. Coaching stock was rather colonial in appearance, with end platforms and steps down, and traffic was handled by “Baltic” and 2-6-4 tank locomotives built in Britain. When Hong Kong reverted to British rule after the second world war, some ex-ROD 2-8-Os of Stanier design were brought in, but otherwise the line remained much the same.

The main station at Kowloon was not ready until 1914. It stood beside the Star Ferry pier at Tsimshatsui, convenient for passengers coming across from the Island.However, in 1965 a decision was made to re-site it on reclaimed land at Hung Hom. Steam had already given way to diesel in 1962. There were twelve diesel locomotives, some built in Illinois by General Motors and some of a similar type in Australia. The new station at Hung Horn is just under a mile north-east of Tsimshatsui; railway workshops already there were moved to another reclaimed site at Hung Tung Lau, north of Sha Tin. Reclamation is a commonplace in Hong Kong. Double-tracking between Kowloon and Sha Tin, authorised in 1973, including a new double-line tunnel at Beacon Hill, was commenced in 1975, and in the same year the new Kowloon terminus was opened.

The station at Hung Horn was visited shortly afterwards by HM the Queen and a tablet marks the event. It has six platforms, all underneath the concourse, with ample car and bus facilities and a multi-storey car-park above. The style is reminiscent of the new Euston Station in London. At the same time a freight terminus with a deep-water quay was built alongside. A pier close-by serves ferry steamers from the Wanchai portion of Hong Kong island.


British Section of the Kowloon-Canton Railway

Formerly the KCR was managed by a department of the Hong Kong Government, but in February 1983 operation was transferred to a public corporation by an ordinance of the Governor in Council. The Government owns the line but appoints twelve members of the Managing Board. Four of these are Hong Kong Chinese; two are also members of the Legislative Council of the Crown Colony. The corporation is required to run the railway profitably and on a fully commercial basis, having regard. to the needs of the transport system of the Colony as a whole. Four people comprise the Executive Directorate of the line answerable to the Managing Director, currently D. M. Howes.

Doubling of the line involved a number of large engineering works. Certain short tunnels were opened-out and made into cuttings. The new double-line tunnel at Beacon Hill, 1 mile 644 yd. long, which is 3 miles from the terminus, was completed in 1981. A second single-line tunnel was made between University and Tai Po Market, parallel to the original single-line bore, which is now used for the down line. There is also a tunnel approximately 314 yd. long in the Kowloon suburb of Ho Man Tin under Princess Margaret Road.

In 1976 the Hong Kong Government commissioned Transmark, the independent consultancy arm of British Railways, to report on the future needs of the line. It advised the electrification of the whole railway as far as the border at Lo Wu. Its report also recommended multi-aspect re-signalling throughout, with four-aspect signals between Kowloon and Fo Tan (the racecourse station) and three-aspect thereafter, all to be controlled from a single centre.

An entirely new internal communications system was advised, the rebuilding of every station in modern form, plus three completely new stations, the installation of automatic ticket machines at all stations, the fencing of the line right through to the border, with grade-separated pedestrian crossings, and a completely new maintenance complex at Shatin. A loop line to the racecourse at Fo Tan, with an island platform there in addition to the station at Fo Tan, had been begun before Transmark was asked to report, this having been agreed on between the Government and the Jockey Club.

Thus the KCR was to become a new railway constructed on the line of the old, much as the London mainline electrification of BR has been from Euston to the north. Another consequence of modernisation was the reconstruction of all the under-line bridges, apart from some already rebuilt. This was to enable axle-loads to be increased from18 to 25 tons. Included in these works was the border bridge over the Shamchun River at Lo Wu. As a result, the restrictions previously necessary on through freight traffic from China have been lifted. All of this great undertaking was costed at three-billion Hong Kong dollars.

This expenditure has been met entirely from central Government funds and has entailed no raising of outside money. The whole aim of the modernisation has been to serve the growing population of the northern and eastern part of the New Territories, as the mainland part of the Colony is called. These works have permitted the line speed to be raised from the previous 45 m.p.h. to 75 m.p.h. The former hourly train service, with half-hourly peak period trains, has been increased to 16 trains per hour at peaks and nine at other times, and the total journey time from Kowloon to Lo Wu reduced from 70 minutes to under 40.

Through trains to and from China which had been suspended thirty years before, were resumed in 1979. The Guangzhou Administration of the Chinese Railways has built two new luxury trains for this service, and these now operate twice daily. The Chinese diesel locomotive works right through and the only stop on Hong Kong territory is at the frontier station of Lo Wu, where KCR pilot-men and guards are taken-up or set-down. All freight is conveyed in Chinese. vehicles. KCR locomotives propel these trains over the international bridge (these being always of empty stock) and return from the Chinese side with a loaded train. The KCR has no revenue-earning freight stock of its own though it has a few departmental vehicles.

These new international trains running non-stop between the Border and Kowloon have necessitated customs and immigration formalities at the terminus. The trains work into and out of platform 6 which is segregated from the other five. The arriving locomotive is released by means of a traverser operating across the inner ends of platforms 6, 5 and 4. Other trains to Lo Wu convey passengers for China in KCR stock, but they must de-train at that station and cross the international bridge on foot, and similarly in the reverse direction. It is not expected that China will electrify its part of the line to Guangzhou in the foreseeable future.

The first stage of the electrification was completed in 1982, when the new inner-suburban service began between Kowloon and Sha Tin. A station was built at Kowoon Tong, 2.75 miles out near the Southern portal of the new Beacon Hill Tunnel. Here was constructed an interchange point between the KCR and the new Mass Transit Underground Railway, thus putting KCR passengers in rail communication with east and west Kowloon as far as   Tsuen Wan, and with Hong Kong Island.

The second stage of the electrification, from Sha Tin to Tai Po Market, was opened in May 1983, by the Financial Secretary of the Colony, John Bremridge. Diesel-hauled trains continued to operate to Lo Wu but ceased entirely when full electrification to the border was inaugurated by Sir Edward Youde, the Governor, on July 15 of this year. A special train conveyed nearly 500 guests, including top Government officials and Chinese representatives, non-stop to Lo Wu, where the Governor unveiled a plaque to commemorate the event. A week later a final nostalgic run was arranged by diesel-hauled passenger stock as a sentimental journey for railway enthusiasts, the fare charged being 40 Hong Kong dollars, equivalent to about £4 sterling.


Sha Tin Station before electrification to Tai Po Market on May 2, 1983. Th e.m.u. is one of the six-car outer-suburban sets.

The e.m.u. trains, built in England by Metro-Cammell, are made up of three-car sets, one class only, on inner-suburban services, with two sets coupled at peak hours. The outer-suburban service is maintained by six-car trains, differing from the others in having luggage, lavatory, and first-class accommodation. Each of these new trains will carry 576 passengers. Inner- and outer-suburban trains are identical externally, being finished in aluminium like the trains of London Transport and the Hong Kong Mass Transit system, but relieved with a red line below the waist and the KCR logo. The day’s services begin at 05.30 and run till midnight. Journey time between Kowloon and Sha Tin, where the
inner-suburban service ends, has been cut to 12 minutes inclusive of stops.

Ten freight trains run in each direction daily, all coming through from China.  There are extensive marshalling sidings at Lo Wu, planned well before the modernisation of the system was begun. Much of the traffic is in livestock on the hoof, especially pigs. Intermediate freight-handling points have been established at Ho Man Tin and Sha Tin. In 1982 the amount of freight handled totalled 1.8 million tonnes and 2.16 million head of livestock.

The modernisation plan called for continuously-welded rail of a heavier section than formerly, laid mostly on pre-stressed concrete sleepers with Pandrol clips. Timbers are always used at points and crossings. Remote control of outlying interlocking installations is from Kowloon terminus, with telephonic communication to every signal. The control panel occupies three sides of the room and is of the entrance/exit push-button type. It was installed by Westinghouse Signals Limited. Controlled from it are 50 track miles, 74 running signals, 45 automatic signals (seven semi-automatic), 53 position light shunting signals, and 139 points.

No fewer than 395 routes can be set-up from the panel. Descriptions of the trains are manually transmitted by the digit buttons in a train describer unit on the shelf below the panel. These descriptions appear on the panel and can then be followed along their routes from signal to signal. A P-prefix signifies a diesel-hauled passenger train, E shows an e.m.u., F a diesel-hauled freight train. The control centre is staffed by a train controller, two panel operators, and an electrical control operator, with an announcer. The language of operation is normally Cantonese but station announcements are made in English as well.

All stations now have platforms at the floor level of the e.m.u. stock, namely 3ft. 6 in. Tai Po Station has been closed and replaced by a new Station at Tai Po Market 1.5 miles further north. Here, as at Sha Tin, there is an integrated bus terminal and taxi stand. Feeder services to the stations have been worked out with the Kowloon Bus Company, whose vehicles serve the whole of the New Territories. Unlike the practice in Britain, station platforms end in steps, not ramps.

All level crossings have been eliminated except one at Lo Wu, retained for the convenience of troops manning the border. Only passengers proceeding to China may travel to Lo Wu, unless special permission is granted, as in the case of persons living inside the restricted area. The effective outer terminus thus becomes the last station but one, namely Sheung Shui, though the trains themselves do not terminate there but continue to Lo Wu. There are, however, both facing and trailing crossovers at Sheung Shui and a siding.

Until April 1983, there was a short branch line, which left the main line 17 miles out from Kowloon, near Fanling, and served the Chinese cemetery at Wo Hop Shek. This was excluded from the modernisation programme and has been closed. The only deviation is now the loop serving the racecourse at Fo Tan.

The KCR possesses a Plasser & Theurer automatic tamping and lining machine, and has a second on hire. Rails weigh 108lb. per yd. and are purchased in bulk after tender, some from Britain, others from Germany and Austria. The ballast is the local granite.


International Express from Kowloon to Guangzhou leaving Kowloon Station on its way to the frontier at Lo Wu. Made up of Chinese Railways rolling stock, it is hauled by a “DF3” class 1,800 h.p. diesel-electric locomotive No. 0182

The old KCR was unfenced and was used by the Chinese of the New Territories as a convenient footpath. With the advent of swift new electric trains at frequent intervals, plus power at 25kV, an intensive scheme of re-education has been necessary.  Notices are published in Cantonese and English throughout the system and beyond it, warning the public not to trespass, because the equipment is lethal. Station signs and directions are also bi-lingual, and staff who deal with the travelling public have to be able to speak English, though in fact the proportion of British people to Chinese in the Colony is very small.

The 61 new e.m.u. trains are 10ft. 2in. wide, each car being 78ft. 9in. long. There is a driving cab at each end of the three-car rakes and drivers are in telephonic communication with their guards. They can also make public announcements in every vehicle, such as warnings of the impending closing of doors and the name of the next stop. All this is done in English and Cantonese. Each car has three automatic sliding doors on each side.

Audible warning of yellow aspects is given in the driving cabs by magnets between the rails. The system is similar to the BR a.w.s. design. For the first 1.5 miles from Kowloon, as far as Mongkok, the line is signalled for two-way running, Impending diversion of a train is signalled by illuminated “feathers” in the usual way.

The new maintenance depot at Ho Tung Lau, north of Sha Tin, deals with routine repairs and overhauls, and there is a mechanical train washer and hygienic disposal of the waste from the toilet compartments of the outer-suburban stock.

Now that complete electrification has been inaugurated the dark green passenger coaches of the diesel-hauled trains will become a memory. They had a somewhat Australian, even American appearance, with their great height inside, which allowed for electric fans. The e.m.u.  stock, though wide, is unmistakably British and much less lofty. Pantographs are of the, Faiveley type, the contact wire being set at 17 ft. 4 in. high on plain line. The wire is staggered in the usual way between supports to minimise wear on the pantographs. The down line (which is from the border towards Kowloon) is electrically separated from the up, and both are divided into sections and sub-sections by switchgear at feeder stations and in line-side cabins. Sub-sections can be isolated by switches mounted on line supports so that work can be done locally without disturbing other parts of the system.

Power for the new railway is provided by the China Light & Power Co. Ltd., a Hong Kong company, and is supplied to Tai Wai Feeder Station through its 132,000-Volt network, stepped down to 25kV. From the Tai Wai station, it goes out to the catenary at 50 cycles single-phase ac. by bare overhead conductors. Booster transformers and return conductors are provided, the latter connected to the rails at intervals. To avoid interference most of the cables running on railway land have been removed and those that remain have been immunised. It has not been found necessary to screen signals as on BR.

The KCR and the Hong Kong Mass-Transit system (which are quite separate undertakings) have both arranged with the United Kingdom Government to use the services of its Railway Inspectorate for all new works. The same body will also hold enquiries into any serious accident, should one occur. This is a completely new development, as previously such enquiries were held by the KCR management alone, who were thus judge and jury in their own cause.

Hong Kong lies within the Tropic of Cancer and is subject in time of monsoons to heavy rain and occasional typhoons. Drainage of the line has therefore had to be given very careful consideration, as well as the stability of structures. In general, it may be said that the overhead-line supports are more substantial than those on BR. And it has been the proud boast of the KCR that it has maintained a public service under typhoon conditions when other forms of transport have been compelled to halt.

Short though it is in its length of mainline, it is today without question one of the most up-to-date urban transit systems in the world. As Sir Peter Parker, Chairman of BR, said when he visited the line in April 1983, “As a piece of work, it takes your breath away.” He had particular admiration for the way in which “practically a new railway” had been built with the minimum interruption of regular services. The KCR modernisation has been the biggest project to date employing the services of Transmark, which is active in 29 countries.

The writer would like to express his great indebtedness to the management of the Kowloon – Canton Railway Corporation for the opportunities given for studying it and for information supplied. In particular he would like to thank, Mr M. R. Elvy, BSc, ACGI, MICE, MC1T, the Permanent Way Engineer of the KCR, Mr. Foster of the Traffic Control, and Miss A. Chui of the Public Relations Department.

This article was first posted on 29th September 2016.

See: The Railway Magazine is a monthly British title that has been published since July 1897.

Specifically related Indhhk articles:

  1. The Modernisation of the British Section of the KCR, 1983 article – follow-up letter
  2. The KCR, 1980s electrification – coaches built by Metro-Cammell, Birmingham, UK

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. KCR, Beacon Hill Tunnel, longest tunnel in China 1910
  2. KCR, Beacon Hill Tunnel Ropeway – 1907
  3. KCR, Choices of routes,construction and opening
  4. KCR, Riding on a steam loco footplate to Lo Wu – 1955 Meccano Magazine article
  5. KCR, Tai Po Kau station – dramatic film!
  6. KCR, The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) 1910-1940 – major accidents/incidents
  7. KCR, The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 1 – The Beginning, Three Possible Routes…
  8. KCR, The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 2 – Construction
  9. KCR, The Kowloon-Canton Railway (British Section) Part 3 – the construction of Kowloon Station
  10. KCR, The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 4 – The Early Years (1910 to 1940)
  11. KCR, The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 5 – The Post War Years (1945 to 1978)
  12. KCR, Whampoa Railway Siding
  13. KCR, Zonta White House, Tai Po – constructed 1906, quarters for managerial staff during KCR construction
  14. The Sha Tau Kok railway
  15. The Sha Tau Kok railway – further information
  16. The Sha Tau Kok railway – Absorbing 1986 account by RJ Phillips
  17. Wo Hop Shek Spur Line
  18. Wo Hop Shek Spur Line – film en route to the cemetery and crematorium


One comment

  • Jacob

    Hi! one thing I have to say is that I’m pretty sure they brought in WD 2-8-0’s and not ROD 2-8-0’s, of which I’m assuming you’re referring to the stanier 8F’s. The WD 2-8-0’s brought in after the war were of Robert riddles’ design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *