West Rail – Part 1 In the Beginning
Tymon Mellor: We take for granted the Hong Kong rail transport system; barring the occasional but rare incident, it operates reliably and efficiently every day for 365 days a year. The system is so efficient that we forget about the enormous efforts required in the development of the lines, the complexities of the designs, the challenges of construction and the legacy to both the territory and the construction industry. It is unfashionable to celebrate success, but at 2pm on the 20th December, West Rail, now part of the Tuen Ma Line, will have been operating for twenty years, serving the communities of the north-west New Territories. This series of articles will explore the development of the railway, the technical challenges and how the railway established new standards while completing the project on time and below budget.
The development of the new towns in the 1980s was supposed to lead to the establishment of new self-sustaining urban clusters with people living, working and playing in the same area. However, while people moved their accommodation out of the congested urban areas, the locations of employment remained on the northside of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, forcing people to commute. In the new towns along East Rail, Shatin (commenced 1973), Tai Po (commenced 1976), Fanling and Sheung Shui (commenced 1987), the residents could take advantage of the upgraded railway with the double tracking and introduction of electric train service in 1983 significantly improving rail services.
The new towns to the west of the territory; Tuen Mun, Yuen Long and Tin Shui Wai, only had road access, although in the case of Tuen Mun. the Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry Company operated a Hovermarine service to Central at that time. To improve the connectivity of the western towns, a Light Rail System was proposed in the early 1980s and after a false start, the KCRC implemented the project, opening in September 1988.
HKYF Hovermarine Service
Comprehensive Transport Studies
With the population forecast to grow from 4.2 million in 1973 to 5.9 million in 1991, with much of that growth in the new decentralised urban areas, it was clear that the Government needed a holistic review of the Territory’s transport needs. In 1976 the Government commissioned the first Comprehensive Transport Study (CTS) to assess the impact on transport needs with the growing population.
The report concluded that, the MTR network should be extended to serve the new communities in Tsuen Wan, the KCRC East Rail should be double tracked and electrified, restraint policies should be placed on private car ownership, and a new road building programme should be implemented. It also identified the option for a new railway line connecting Tuen Mun to Tai Po or Sheung Shui, with the implementation dependent on the development plans for the area.
CTS Growth Assumptions (1976)
Second Comprehensive Transport Study
With the building out of the new towns and the completion of the recommendations from the original CTS study, a new report was commissioned by the Government to identify the next phase of transportation requirements. The Second CTS was published in May 1989 with many new recommendations for additional infrastructure. In terms of railways serving new communities, it recommended extending the MTR network to Junk Bay to serve the new town of Tseung Kwan O, and a rail line linking Tsuen Wan to the north-west New Territories along with an extension of the light rail network there.
Second Comprehensive Transport Study (1989)
In addition to the new towns, extensive reclamations were planned to provide more land for urban development. Within the harbour, a new reclamation at Kowloon Point providing 40 hectares for new development and land for new infrastructure was proposed.
Harbour Reclamation Plans (1994)
In the early 90s as manufacturing took off in China, Hong Kong was seen as the major commercial port for southern China. A number of studies were undertaken to prepare Hong Kong for this new role. In 1989, the Port and Airport Development Strategy Study (PADS) recommended that the majority of Hong Kong future port facilities be developed at the northeast side of Lantau Island, creating container terminals CT10 and CT11. This was reaffirmed by the Lantau Port and Western Harbour Development (LAPH) Studies conducted in 1993.
In 1990, the KCRC started promoting the development of both rail freight services and intercity services with the mainland with the ‘through train’ using immigration facilities at Hung Hom station. With the possible significant growth in China traffic, it was recognised that expansion may be limited by the capacity of East Rail. Thus, in 1991 the KCRC undertook a review into the feasibility of a new separate railway line to cope with the anticipated freight and passenger growth. From the study, a handling and rail loading yard would be constructed at Pinghu, north of Shenzhen allowing a ‘just in time’ approach to be adopted, where containers would be placed onto freight trains and moved directly to Kwai Chung port, where the containers would be distributed to the waiting ocean going vessels. The KCRC modelling indicated that daily rail freight could grow from 1,440 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in 2001 to 4,857 TEU by 2011.
The corporation had also been working with the Chinese Ministry of Railways to develop container services. On the 15th December 1993 an intermodal container train left Zhengzhou for Hong Kong arriving three days later, saving two days on the usual rail journey duration and seven to ten days on a marine journey. This approach also included single pricing and billing for the container services. This was seen as the future for container handling, and a 6% increase in container traffic in 1994 to 6,153 TEU a year indicated that it was what the market wanted.
Railway Development Studies
Given the complexities of the railway network development, the Government commissioned a dedicated study in 1991 to identify plans for railway development up to 2011. Published in 1993 the Railway Development Study (RDS) took onboard the recommendations of the Second CDS and changes implemented as a result of the White Paper on Transport Policy, published in January 1990, the key change being the decision to build the Airport Railway.
The review focused on railway development in particular:
- Long distance freight;
- Long distance passengers;
- Suburban passengers;
- Urban passengers; and
- District level distribution.
RDS Study Report (1993)
The report concluded that a new western corridor was required to, support cross boundary travel, provide a port rail line to allow container delivery to Kwai Chung, and link the growing urban areas of Yuen Long and Tin Shui Wai. An eastern corridor linking Ma On Shan to Tai Wai and extending into Kowloon was also identified. A longer-term development proposed extending the western corridor to Tuen Mun and the future Yam O – Green Island reclamations.
The Port Rail Line proposal would meet the needs of the future freight transport strategy, adopting the KCRC strategy whereby containers would cross from the Mainland and be delivered directly to the port for transfer to ocean going vessels. The line would run from Lo Wu through Kam Tin to Tsuen Wan, connecting to Container Terminal Number 8 at Kwai Chung. The forecast traffic was 1,450 TEU per day in 2001 rising to 2,500 TEU per day in 2006 and over 4,000 TEU by 2011. Given the potential growth in container traffic, a second line was identified from Au Tau to Lantau and serving the new port development proposed at Yam O. Freight was to be the future of the railways.
RDS Recommended Railways (1993)
Western Corridor Scheme
In December 1994 the Transport Secretary, Haider Barma published the Government’s railway development strategy based on the recommendations of the RDS report. This included the 52km long Western Corridor railway, to be completed by 2001. The line had been extended south to Tuen Mun to serve the growing town before utilising the RDS route into West Kowloon. The line would include a new international terminal in West Kowloon next to the Airport Railway, connections to Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau, along with a freight connection to Kwai Chung. However, much to the frustration of some legislators the extension of the $32 billion scheme would stop short of the centre of Tuen Mun. The Transport Secretary claimed that the additional $2 billion cost to extend into the town was not economic.
RDS Western Corridor Railway Proposal (1993)
Thus, on the 26th January 1995 the Government invited the KCRC to submit a proposal for the construction and operation of the Western Corridor Railway.
- Hong Kong Comprehensive Transport Study, Wilbur Smith and Associates, 1976 ↑
- Hong Kong Second Comprehensive Transport Study, Government Printer, May 1989 ↑
- Chapter 6: Transformation after the return to China (1997–2015), Pui-yin Ho, 2018 ↑
- KCRC Annual Report, 1991 ↑
- Railway Development Study, Final Report Volume 1, May 1993 ↑
- KCRC Annual Report, 1994 ↑
- Railway Development Study, Public Consultation Document, Apr 1993 ↑
- Railway Network Plan Unveiled, SCMP, 15 Dec 1994 ↑
- Western Corridor Railway Project, Full Proposal to Hong Kong Government, Executive Summary, KCRC, Nov 1995 ↑
This article was first posted on 18th July 2023.
Related Indhhk articles: Our Index has several articles about railways in Hong Kong. See: Railway, KCR and Kowloon Canton Railway.