West Rail – Part 4 Detailed Design

With the completion of the technical studies phase of the project in 1998, the Western Corridor Railway had been rationalized from a multimodal railway serving two China crossings and operating double stack freight, to a commuter line linking Tuen Mun to Kowloon. With Government funding in place, the new project now known as ‘West Rail’ was ready to proceed to the implementation phase, but first KCRC needed to finish the design and establish a management team to take the project forward.


In October 1989 the Governor, David Wilson, announced the Airport Core Programme (ACP), a $20 billion infrastructure development consisting of ten major projects associated with the development of the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. For many, this was the confidence boost that the territory needed following the Tiananmen Square incident, but for others, it was seen as a way to empty the public coffers before the handover in 1997. The projects included:

  • Hong Kong International Airport;
  • Airport Railway;
  • Lantau Link;
  • Western Harbour Crossing;
  • North Lantau Expressway;
  • Route 3, Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi Sections;
  • West Kowloon Highway;
  • West Kowloon Reclamation;
  • Central Reclamation Phase 1; and
  • Phase 1 of North Lantau New Town, what would become Tung Chung.

All these projects needed to be completed before July 1997 (all but the airport and West Kowloon reclamation finished on time), and the Government established a dedicated project management team to coordinate the works called the New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office (NAPCO), operating under the auspices of the Works Bureau. This large work load exhausted the skills available in Hong Kong requiring the mobilisation of new international partners and resources.

One of the new parties to Hong Kong was Bechtel, a large US multinational company renowned for its project management and technical skills. They supported the Works Bureau by providing many of the staff for NAPCO, with over 300 staff[1], some of whom had come from the recently completed Channel Tunnel Project in the UK.

As a series of ten individual projects, each of a multi-contract nature, the ACP would appear to be a more complex undertaking than the new Western Corridor Railway. However, although the new line may only have been a single project, it was perhaps of equal complexity and with much more direct impact on adjoining communities and existing infrastructure, than the ACP which was constructed mostly on new reclamation. With much of West Rail being constructed in the New Territories, it had a major impact on the surrounding community and existing drainage network, two stations being located above major nullahs at Tuen Mun. At Yuen Long and Long Ping. In Kowloon, the railway had to be built within 50 m of apartments at Mei Foo, and north of it, tunnelling for the railway through narrow urban corridors had to be carried out in close proximity to underground infrastructure including structural foundations, some of which had to be demolished or underpinned. Arguably, West Rail was more complex than the ACP, possibly as complex if not more so than any project at that time particularly given the time scale to complete the works.

Since the project had not yet received any formal approval from the Government at the study stage, the KCRC was reluctant to recruit and mobilise its own team. It relied extensively on Bechtel and other specialist consultants under the control of the new KCRC West Rail Division formed early in 1996 under the Director Ian McPherson. As a project manager, Bechtel was in a class of its own, and it had the skills and resources to mobilise the personnel needed to progress the works. It also came with all the management plans, process and organisational structure to develop the multi-billion-dollar project.

The extensive use of consultants for the scheme was heavily criticised by members of LegCo, as it was seen to be taking jobs away from locals, although many of the consultants were locally based. The criticism also failed to recognise the complexity of the scheme and the specialist skills needed to complete the design given the challenging operational conditions. With the appointment of the new chairman in December, 1996, Mr Yeung was committed to establishing a dedicated KCRC team to manage the works and dispense with the expensive consultants.

K Y Yeung (1996)

With the completion of the ACP projects in 1997 and 1998, a large pool of skilled and experienced engineers became available for recruitment just as the principles of the West Rail scheme were being finalised and agreed with Government. These new recruits would take over the project from Bechtel and drive the project to completion.

New Team

What distinguishes one infrastructure project from the next; site constraints are always unique and complex, while the contract documents are similar and provide a structure to implement the works in accordance with the proponent’s quality system. These fixed requirements are common, however the people; the designers, managers, engineers etc and their approach, is what makes a success project. West Rail was fortunate, that the new recruits brought with them the experience of the past five years building the new airport at Chek Lap Kok along with all the supporting infrastructure.

The first to arrive in March 1997 was James Blake, the former Secretary for Works who oversaw much of the ACP, he was appointed as the Senior Director of the new Capital Projects. This included West Rail and two extensions to the East Rail network, a line from Ma On Shan to link with East Rail at Tai Wai, and extending East Rail to Tsim Sha Tsui. A spur line from East Rail to Lok Ma Chau was also under consideration following the deferment of West Rail Phase II.

James Blake (2003)

Bechtel was retained as the project managers until the KCRC team could be fully mobilised and take over the management of the remaining design, procurement and construction works. Until the new team was mobilised, James had to make sure Bechtel’s decisions were appropriate for the project and for the management approach that KCRC would be adopting. Recruitment of the new team started in the summer of 1997, many of the new team were new to the project while others were from the Bechtel team who transferred to KCRC.

West Rail Staffing

By the summer of 1998, the core of the new West Rail management team was in place, they all had a common belief that project management was about cooperation and a team effort.

To head the West Rail team, the Director was Ian Thoms, an experienced engineer and manager from the Airport Rail. Ian, a Scottish gentleman with a gentle accent to suit, a warm handshake and smile, he was the public face of the project, and was happy talking with legislators, engineers and members of the public. He was also an experienced engineer having worked on many MTR projects including the recently completed airport railway. His approach was to push his team for the best and to work with the contractors to deliver the job on time and within budget. He was a great believer in the one team approach, and there was no ‘us and them’. On completion of the project Ian would head up a team promoting and implementing the new Gautrain in South Africa before working on a metro project in Malaysia.

Ian Thoms Director West Rail (2002)

Supporting Ian were four General Managers, responsible for the key disciplines need for the line, these being systems, operations, civil works and project support.

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West Rail Project Management Team (1998)

The General Manager Railway Systems was Paul Anderson, a tall Australian with extensive knowledge of modern signalling and control systems. It was Paul who developed one of the major value engineering initiatives, viz. reducing the train lengths to save on civil works and increasing train frequency using the now reliable moving block signalling systems to maintain line capacity. This would be one of the greatest project cost savings.

Paul Anderson GM Railway Systems (2002)

Paul left the project before completion, handing over to Leo Mak who would see the railway opened and went on to undertake a similar role on metro projects in Kuala Lumpur. Paul would head to the middle east as the commissioning manager and operator on a number of the new metros.

Leo Mak GM Railway Systems (2003)

Martin Brown, the Operations Manager of East Rail and the Acting Director of West Rail prior to the appointment of Ian Thoms, also headed up the operations team. On his departure, Wilfred Lau became the General Manager Operations, providing all the operations input during the design development phase and also prepared the Operations and Maintenance Plan. Wilfred had a number of technical specialists preparing documentation for the line. Bob Lupton was the system safety manager whose job was to ensure that the railway would be safe to operate in both normal and degraded modes. He worked hard with specialist consultants to develop a safety strategy for the line and attained necessary regulatory approval from the Fire Services Department and Railway Inspectorate. On leaving the KCRC, Bob moved to New Zealand to help the railway authority there with their safety systems.

Bob Lupton and Wilfred Lau (1999)

The General Manager Construction was Jayananda Jesudason referred to by his colleagues as ‘Jesu’, he was responsible for making the project happen. Jesu was an experienced engineering hand, having worked on the original MTR projects, Eastern Harbour Crossing, the Channel Tunnel project, and headed the planning team for the new airport. He was instrumental in looking for cost and programme savings and working with the contractors to resolve their problems and to move the job forward. Jesu would continue with KCRC until the merger with MTRC in 2007. He then provided assistance to the new metro lines in Kuala Lumpur before heading a team building casinos in Macau and Manila.

Jesu Jesudason (2003)

Alan Donnet was the General Manager Project Support, and he was responsible for managing the cost and procurement. An experienced quantity surveyor, he had a dedicated team to prepare cost estimates and to establish the cost forecast, along with a procurement team to prepare the tenders and manage their implementation. He resolved commercial issues before they became a problem and he worked with Jesu to keep the project moving forward. On finalization of the accounts at the end of West Rail, Alan joined one of Hong Kong’s largest contractors as their commercial manager.

Alan Donnet (2003)

The initial planning works for West Rail was undertaken by Andy Mitchell. He had been working for the contractor building the new airport terminal building and was very experienced in contract procurement, design and construction. He was supported by Wilfred and Paul in developing the testing and commissioning strategy for the new line. Andy left the project early to work on major projects in London. He was awarded a CBE for his work on Cross Rail and is now the CEO of Thames Tideway Tunnel, a major tunnelling project in London.

West Rail Staffing

The Bechtel team had proposed a construction management structure based on a matrix management approach[2], as this approach ensures consistent solutions across different contracts, but there was concern that it may dilute and delay reporting. Instead, Ian and the team established a more traditional pyramid structure, with a project manager for the north section, Gregory Yuen and one for the south section C N Fung, supported by construction managers for the geographical subsections. Reporting to the construction managers were contract specific project engineers.

West Rail Project Management Team (2002)

Hong Kong had two generic models for the management of construction works, the Government approach, whereby the designer of the works would supervise the construction with resident site staff (RSS). This allowed the site teams to rapidly address site technical problems and focus on quality and documentation. There was however a concern that there was little incentive to control cost and maintain the programme. The alternative approach, adopted by MTR and the Airport Authority, was to mobilise their own teams to supervise the works. This had the disadvantage of having to recruit and maintain a large team, but it gave hands on control to serve the best interests of the project proponent, and the ability to make changes necessary to achieve budget and programme.

West Rail Partnership Approach

The new West Rail management team had experience with both supervisory arrangements and recognised the benefits and limitations. After much discussion, a hybrid arrangement was developed. Where the design was undertaken by KCRC, the design consultants would provide the RSS to resolve technical issues and to ensure the quality of the works, while the KCRC Project Manager was responsible for cost and programme. The KCRC site teams were made up of experienced engineers, many with backgrounds working for contractors and all with a passion to do a good job. On completion of West Rail, several of these engineers would progress to work on the East Rail Extension projects, the new metros in Kular Lumpur, and the burgeoning casino construction work in Macau.

West Rail Construction Management Structure

This hybrid approach ensured that problems were identified, reported and resolved early, avoiding delays and cost. This approach, along with other project management initiatives taken by KCRC ensured that the contribution made by contractors was both recognised and rewarded as everyone’s focus was on best for the project.

Detailed Design

Starting in late 1996, the Technical Studies phase of the works had progressed the design up to around 25%, sufficient to secure the decisions and approvals initially required to further progress the project. By the summer of 1997 there was a fixed alignment, the land requirements had been identified and the environmental impact assessment was being prepared for public consultation in early 1998.

Development of the construction programme had confirmed that the two complex tunnel sections at Kwai Tsing and Tai Lam would be on the project critical path along with the procurement of the rolling stock. These three packages would need to be tendered and awarded early to meet the programme. Land acquisition for the project would be implemented in two stages to reflect the critical path, with Tai Lam tunnel gazetted first on the 25 July 1997 and the remainder of the line on the 3 October 1997[3]. These processes provided the public with 60 days to lodge any objections, to be resolved in the proceeding nine months before the scheme and any unresolved objections could be submitted to the Executive Council for consideration. Subject to authorisation, site works could start in late 1998.

With the publication of the gazette, work commenced on land acquisition. The Lands Department mobilised a team of around 120 persons supported by a similar number of KCRC land specialist to undertake the land resumption. This combined approach resolved the previous concern related to limited resources delaying the programme.

West Rail Master Programme

By August 1997, the civil works design elements of the technical studies were coming to an end and tendering commenced for consultants to undertake the detailed design work. The scope included preparing the tender drawings and specifications for the construction contracts. The five design packages were awarded in March 1998.

Detailed Design Consultants

For the specialist railway systems and track form, the Technical Studies consultants prepared the specifications and tender documents for the procurement phase commencing in late 1999.

Critical to the success of West Rail was the signalling system, this originally this had to handle domestic train services, intercity services, and freight traffic. This was already being achieved on East Rail with a mixture of automation and manual driving operations, but the approach placed limitation on the line capacity to around 24 trains an hour. To meet the long-term service capacity (including Phase II works) West Rail would have to operate at a 105 second headway or 34 trains an hour, although at line opening, a longer three-minute headway was proposed for the peak period.

To select the most appropriate signalling supplier, a ‘funnel process’ was developed to whittle down the seven suppliers to the final three bidders; Siemens, CSEE and Alcatel. For the evaluation stage of the process, draft specifications were issued to the six suppliers for review. Over 500 comments were received and the specifications were modified to remove ambiguity[4].

West Rail Funnel Process

Value Engineering

During the development of the detailed design, there was an ever-present concern over the cost of the project. With agreement for $29 billion of Government funding in February 1998, KCRC relinquished the rights for property development along the line. Thus, there was little incentive to create large stations to support extensive property development, but the project was too advanced to significantly change the station footprints.

By September 1998, the evaluation of the signalling suppliers’ proposals confirmed the practicality of operating up to 34 trains per hour and with this, it was realised that the originally proposed passenger carrying capacity could also be achieved by reducing the train length and increasing train frequency. Thus, whilst a 12-car train operating 20 trains per hour has a capacity of 67,000 passengers an hour[5] per direction, a similar carrying capacity could alternatively be achieved with a 9-car train operating at 27 trains an hour. The higher frequency train service had a number of benefits:

  • Shorter waiting times for passengers;
  • Reduced walking distances at stations;
  • Reduction in platform length;
  • Reduction in platform screen doors; and
  • Reduction in public area space and environmental control coverage.

The shorter platforms simplified the station design where existing spatial constraints were requiring curved platforms and reduction in the number of entrances, saving both construction and operational costs[6]. The total cost saving in this value engineering option was estimated at around $10 billion.

There were however some downsides. It was too late in the station design to make significant footprint changes, and shorter platforms resulted in longer tunnels and viaducts, but the biggest impact was on the depot where stable tracks set up for two 12-car trains each had to be lengthened to support three 9-car trains and with maintenance buildings adjusted to suit.

A second and lower value saving was the achievement on the piling for the viaducts. KCRC adopted a test pile scheme under which piling contractors were engaged to drill test piles on small sites near the big stations. This was used to demonstrate to the Buildings Department (BD) that it was safe to use friction piles in rock sockets rather than totally end bearing piles to meet the same loading requirements. As the test pile scheme was just completed at the start of the works tendering exercise, tenderers who had won contracts based on the use of conventional end bearing piles were advised that if they wished to adopt the alternative, they could do so and KCRC would split the cost savings with them. Several contracts took up the opportunity, resulting in time and cost savings that more than made up for the HK$100 million spent on the test piles[7].

Project Agreement

In February 1998, Exco endorsed the draft project agreement, opening the way for the first tranche of funding of $14.5 million, to be given to the project in April. This allowed KCRC to award the detailed design consultancies. The environmental impact assessment had been completed in January 1998 and following consultations; it was endorsed by the Advisory Council on the Environment in March 1998[8].

Following a review of the gazettal process, in September 1998, the Chief Executive in Council authorised the project allowing the resumption of about 380 hectares of land required for the railway project, including 83 hectares of private land. This process was substantially completed by June 1999, with the land cleared and handed over to KCRC’s contractors for construction to commence.

On the 26th October 1998, the first ground breaking ceremony was held at the southern portal of the 5.5km long Tai Lam Tunnel, marking the commencement of the construction of West Rail. The event was held in the rain while the Typhoon No. 3 signal was in effect! This would be the first of many such ceremonies as the project gained momentum.

Tai Lam Tunnel Ground Breaking Ceremony, 26 October 1998



  1. Office Records of Proceedings, Hong Kong Legislative Council, 25 Mar 1992

2. Project Management, Hong Kong West Rail, NCE, 1999

3. West Rail Project Brief, KCRC, October 1997

4. All Systems Go, Hong Kong West Rail, NCE, 1999

5. KCRC Presentation LegCo Subcommittee on Western Corridor Railway, 4 July 1996

6. Value Engineering, Hong Kong West Rail, NCE, 1999

7. http://www.hkengineer.org.hk/issue/vol31-sep2003/cover_story/

8. West Rail, The Way Ahead, KCRC, 1998

This article was first posted on 11th August 2023.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. West Rail Part 1 In the Beginning
  2. West Rail Part 2 Detailed Feasibility Study
  3. West Rail Part 3 Technical Studies




  • Olivier Martin

    Superb, thank you Tymon. The collaborative approach was very much appreciated in solving problem ahead of their destructive power and creating a multidisciplinary approach to their resolution. A great lesson for project management. A great intuition for engineers.

  • richard mavin beazley

    Another masterpiece Tymon ! thanks
    It was a privilege to have spent 4 years on West Rail, at Tsuen Wan Wet and Nam Cheong

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