West Rail – Part 10 Operations: The Ghost Train

Tymon Mellor: Following five years of construction, the West Rail Line opened for revenue services on the 20th December 2003 at 2pm. The KCRC was expecting around 200,000 passenger trips a day to use the new service, with the line providing a fast direct link between Kowloon and the north-west New Territories. But once the initial euphoria subsided there was a problem, as the trains were only carrying around 50% of the forecast demand. On top of that, despite all the trials and training, there remained a few technical problems to address.

Track Teething Problems

With loaded trains operating a revenue service, two problems with the trackform soon became apparent. The permanent way maintenance team picked up areas of micro-cracking in the head of the rail. The cause was a result of the effects of a poor wheel rail interface. During the design of the track, a detailed study was conducted on the interface, establishing the optimum wheel and rail profile. However, in this case theory and reality did not match, and after extensive efforts to address the problem, the rail head was re-profiled by a rail grinder and the problem was resolved.

The second problem was again related to the interface between the trackform and the rolling stock. In this case, the trains experienced excessive vibration during passage through the Tai Lam Tunnel, as at certain locations, the trains would experience a hunting oscillation. After much investigation the problem was found to be associated with a narrowing of the track gauge resulting in the vehicle bogies vibrating. Although the gauge was within operational tolerances, the vehicle bogie was sensitive to any narrowing. By ensuring the gauge was set at the upper tolerance value, the vehicle bogies remained stable and avoided the vibration.

Tai Lam Tunnel Trackform Installation (2002)

Lightning

As the first new railway line to be opened by the KCRC West Rail was the focus of media attention, particularly when the service was disrupted. In the first year of operations there were 24 incidents resulting in a delay of more than eight minutes, and there were 26 delays in 2005. However, the total duration of delays in 2005 was about half that of 2004, resulting in passengers being substantially less affected. The majority of the delays were as a result of problems with the signalling system, in particular the axle counters. This culminated in an incident on the 21 July 2005 when exceptional lightning storms resulted in significant disruption due to the axle counters malfunctioning. The Hong Kong Observatory recorded an estimated 10,000 lightning strikes that day in the north-west New Territories[1] over a period of five hours, with many directly or close to railway assets.

A lightning bolt in the sky Description automatically generated

Lightning Strike at Kam Sheung Road Station (21 Jul 2005)

The signalling system utilises an inductive loop system to locate the train, but this was supplemented with axle counters as a secondary detection method for the whole alignment. Both systems have to be functional for the effective operation of the automatic train control system. The initial assumption was that the axle counters may have been hit by the lightning, resulting in a miss count but there were no signs of damage. A subsequent investigation identified that the system earthing arrangements were unable to handle the induced or direct effects resulting from the lightning striking the ground or nearby structures. The induced voltage and variations in potential voltages in copper cables and associated equipment (including the track) from the lightning was sufficient to create a disturbance to the axle counter evaluator or sometimes damaging it, resulting in a miscount and forcing the signalling system to take unnecessary action. Once the problem was identified, the system had to be reset or replaced by the signalling maintenance engineers.

West Rail Axle Counter (2003)

Once the process was understood, measures were taken to improve the earthing and bonding arrangements to prevent a similar occurrence. For the later installations on the Ma On Shan Line, the copper communication cables were replaced with fibre optics to avoid induced voltages, as well as an improved regime on equipotential bonding. Once the changes had been implemented, there was a significant improvement in the reliability of the system and the incident rates dropped from one or two per week to one every six months[2].

Patronage

Patronage forecasting for new transportation infrastructure is always a challenge and has a chequered history. Underestimate the popularity and the infrastructure will quickly reach capacity, while overestimating the patronage will cast suspicion on the commercial justification. It is further complicated by the quality of the data available, the forecast in population changes, employment trends and the broader regional development outlook.

In the mid-90s the Government commissioned the Territorial Development Strategy Review to provide a planning framework for the development of the territory’s housing and infrastructure. The study published in 1996[3] projected the population and employment growth using two growth scenarios: Scenario A – the Pearl River Delta provides the main economic catchment for population and economic growth; and Scenario B – the broader Guangdong and inner provinces would support the territory resulting in a higher rate of economic growth and population[4].

TDSR Population Assumptions (1996)

To support the rising population and increase in economic activity, sites across the territory had already been identified for development providing the new residential and commercial areas. These committed schemes would support the “Base Growth” along with the planned new infrastructure.

TDSR Base Growth Areas (1996)

For the longer-term planning, a design year of 2011 was adopted with a projected population for 7.5 million for Scenario A and 8.1 million for Scenario B (it was actually 7.0 million). To accommodate this additional population, new strategic growth areas were identified in the northern NT as new development areas, with their focus around the proposed new West Rail.

TDSR Strategic Growth Areas (1998)

Thus, the population forecasts for the north-west NT for the year 2011 were:

Base Growth 1.19 million

Scenario A 1.30 million

Scenario B 1.40 million

The actual population for 2011 was 1.05 million, or 75% of the most optimistic forecast.

It was clear to the KCRC as the West Rail project progressed, that the increase in population in the NWNT was not materialising. The stations in the New Territories along with the depot in Kam Tin had been designed to support future property development, either directly on the structures or in adjacent areas. As KY Yeung, the KCRC Chairman said at the topping out of Kam Sheung Road Station in December 2000, “I should be very surprised if, within 10-15 years-time, we don’t see high rise buildings all around us”.

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KY Yeung, the KCRC Chairman (2000)

Now some twenty years later, the residential developments of the Kam Tin sites around the station and depot have only just started.

Recognising the limited population growth, the KCRC revised downwards the patronage forecasts, from an original 340,000 trips per day, to 300,000 by September 2002 and 200,000 just before opening[5]. Even this proved to be wildly optimistic, the actual initial daily average was only 100,500[6]. The KCRC team was flummoxed. The forecasting model had been adjusted for all the latest changes in population, the alternative transport options, and the ease of commuting, yet it was wildly off.

Initially the KCRC considered the low patronage was a result of the service being new and it would take a few weeks for people to change their commuting habits. However, by March 2004 after three months of operation there was no significant change, and the KCRC undertook a detailed review and survey to see how to make the line more attractive to passengers.

The results of the review were:

  • The stations are located in less densely populated areas to avoid advserse impacts on existing communities, but this made them remote and lacking commercial, residential developments to provide a demand;
  • Some stations had no connection with other forms of transport making them isolated;
  • There was a poor understanding by passengers of the line and its stations; and
  • Some of the stations had poor accessibility to the surrounding population.

To overcome these limitations, 15 initiatives were implemented between April 2004 and February 2005 to raise the patronage. These included: free ride days, weekend entertainment, sightseeing packages, fare discounts, free interchange, park and ride facilities, strengthened feeder bus services and free transfer bus services to Tsuen Wan MTR station. These efforts proved successful and by the end of the year the patronage had risen to about 173,000.

By 2007, daily patronage had risen to 213,300[7] but with the merger with the MTRC in December 2007, patronage data for West Rail was no longer publicly available. However, with the opening of the Kowloon Southern Link in August 2009, West Rail was extended to Hung Hom, providing access to the Kowloon peninsula and the cross-harbour bus services. The impact on the patronage was significant, and by 2014, MTRC reported to Legco that the average weekday patronage was 453,200 in October 2014[8], but this was still low against the 2002 forecast of 1.2 million for 2016.

Popular Service

West Rail had been designed to operate a 9-car train service. However, the forecast for the initial patronage indicated it could be accommodated with a 7-car configuration with the train later extended to 8-cars and ultimately 9-cars as demand grew. During the development of the Kowloon Southern Link in 2004, the updated patronage forecast indicated that the ultimate demand for the line could be accommodated with an 8-car train negating the need to ever adopt a 9-car train. Thus, Austin Station was designed for 8-car trains to reduce cost.

In preparation for the line extension to Wu Kai Sha, the 7-car fleet was converted to an 8-car configuration between January 2016 to May 2018, matching the platform length of the new East Kowloon stations and the upgraded Ma On Shan Line stations.

With the full opening of the new line between Tuen Mun and Wu Kai Sha in June 2021, the renamed Tuen Ma Line has become very popular. On most weekdays mornings, during the peak period, it is sometimes impossible to board the first train that a passenger waits for, but there is still spare capacity within the system. With additional rolling stock it is possible to increasing the train frequency from the current 22 trains an hour per direction to at least 30 and possibly the ultimate of 34 trains an hour per direction.

Kam Sheung Road Packed Morning Train (2023)

Sources

  1. KCRC Annual Report 2005
  2. Lightning disturbance to West Rail and enhancements to the earthing design, Henry Cheung & R D David White, April 2008
  3. A NEW, LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT FRAMEWORK FOR HONG KONG A RESPONSE TO CHANGE AND CHALLENGES, A Consultative Digest on the Review 1996 Territorial Development Strategy
  4. A Consultative digest on the Territorial Development Strategy review 1996 a new, long-term development framework for Hong Kong : a response to change and challenges
  5. Action plan for KCRC’s under-utilised line; Three months after West Rail’s launch, SCMP 22 Mar 2004
  6. KCRC Annual Report 2004
  7. KCRC Annual Report 2007
  8. Legislative Council, Official Record of Proceedings, 29 Oct 2014

This article was first posted on 16th January 2024.

Related Indhhk Articles: Our Index contains all of Tymon Mellor’s other 9 West Rail articles.

 

One comment

  • Bob Gallop

    Thoroughly enjoyed your articles Tymon
    And striking lessons learnt with CTRL HS1 with rough ride /‘hunting’ rolling stock etc
    Let’s see how HS2 comes together!
    Love to Fay and a much bigger Josh now!

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