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The Hong Kong Express Rail Link: The Most Expensive Infrastructure in Hong Kong’s History

Hong Kong is a city of 7.5 million people at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in southern China. The dense city has long been an economic hub for South China. Yet, it’s also a part of one of the largest city clusters in the world. Known as the Greater Bay Area or the Pearl River Delta region, Hong Kong and nearby Guangdong province combine to host a population of almost 70-million in an area of about 56,000 square kilometers—that’s more than the population of the UK in a territory smaller than the US state of West Virginia. The three largest economies in the area belong to three neighboring cities—Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou—each with a local economy of over 300 billion dollars of GDP.

These cities have been connected throughout their existence, but that connection took a lot of valuable time until recently. Local authorities built the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link to cut down on that time. The most crucial section of that project became known as the Hong Kong XRL.

From an economic and urban mobility perspective, the rail made perfect sense. But, as the governments moved forward with their plans, Hong Kongers voiced their concerns with the project. It was over-priced, behind schedule, and required the destruction of natural and residential areas. But, the most significant problem was a political one. 

Whether you’re for or against this rail line, there’s no question that its scale was ambitious and, in many ways, the project was successful. It’s now among the most expensive infrastructure projects in Hong Kong’s history. It’s called the Hong Kong Express Rail Link. Let’s get started.

HISTORY

In 1910, while Hong Kong was under British rule, the city remained one of the most influential factors in China’s economy. 130 kilometers to the north, Guangzhou, or Canton, was growing into an important city in its own right. So, the Chinese and British governments built the first rail link between the two cities. Previously, the easiest way to travel from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was over water, through the Pearl River Delta. But, this new connection allowed for much easier border crossings. The single rail required collaboration between the two countries, as China operated the portion within their territory and the British the line within theirs. 

The line was shut down after the Communist revolution of 1949, finally reopening in ’79. By that time, Guangdong province, the area surrounding Hong Kong, had a population of almost 60 million. Cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan were popping up in the spaces between Hong Kong and Guangzhou and essentially sustaining their growth through economic relationships with these larger cities. Between 1990 and 2000, Guangdong would add another 20 million inhabitants. This is all to say that the existing rail connections were overloaded with passengers, and connecting the region’s transport networks could reap huge financial rewards.

In fact, the Chinese government sought to connect the entire country with high-speed rail lines. The plan would require decades to complete, and it’s still in progress today. In the south, the local governments collaborated to announce the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link—or XRL—in 1994. With the United Kingdom handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the rail became a key factor in culturally, politically, and economically integrating Hong Kong with China. Through this rail link, passengers could ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou in less than an hour—they could even travel to Beijing without ever leaving a transit station. With this broad goal in mind, in-depth planning and development began.

PLANNING AND PLOTTING

The decade from ’97 to ’07 was marked by disagreements over how to build this new Express Rail Link. 

Initially, the planners latched onto the idea of building a maglev train. This kind of system uses so-called magnetic levitation to reduce friction and propel trains at breakneck speeds. In Shanghai, construction on the world’s fastest maglev track had already begun. The technology had clear advantages in Hong Kong, as the XRL’s directors sought to cut travel time throughout the region in half. Maglev would do more than that, reducing the time to less than half an hour between Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

 A JR Central L0 series 5-car maglev train undergoing test-running on the Yamanashi Test Track
A JR Central L0 series 5-car maglev train undergoing test-running on the Yamanashi Test Track.By Saruno Hirobano, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

But, it was also costly. Based on the available funding, pursuing maglev in Hong Kong would limit the project to a single rail corridor. Instead, in 2000, a new plan was put forward to build non-maglev high-speed rail. This cheaper plan would allow for 6 distinct corridors, each one branching off towards a different regional station on the mainland. Passengers could still commute between Hong Kong and Guangzhou in less than an hour, but for a fraction of the cost. Estimates placed the budget from 130 to 170 billion Hong Kong dollars—or about 26 billion US dollars in today’s values. 

The final stage of planning revolved around determining routes and locations for new stations. The line would include a single stop in Hong Kong at the West Kowloon Terminus, a station built purely to serve the new rail development. The Hong Kong section would be 26 kilometers long, connecting with the mainland at the Futian (foo-tee-an; NOT foo-she-an) station in Shenzhen. That trip would take just 14 minutes. The 142-kilometer journey to Guangzhou would require 47 minutes, well below the one-hour goal. 

Economists estimated that the track would add billions of dollars in long-term growth to Hong Kong’s GDP. The line could serve more than 100,000 daily riders, commuting to and from the iconic port city. Everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly. But, as Hong Kong’s government prepared to approve the project for development, a small minority of Hong Kongers began to speak out against it, and they made their voices heard.

CONTROVERSY BEGINS

By 2009, the Hong Kong government was ready to approve the new rail line and begin construction before the year’s end. In-depth studies of the project’s potential costs placed the construction budget at just 40 billion Hong Kong Dollars or five billion USD. It was expected to generate about 10 billion USD over the next fifty years—by no means a profit machine, but, as a public service, any profit was seen as positive. The government pointed to other benefits as well. It would allow Hong Kong to maintain its position as a commercial and transit hub for the region and perhaps even boost tourism in the city. With nearby Shenzhen developing into China’s tech capital, the economic partnership and ease of transport throughout the area became more important than ever.

But, in November of ’09, something changed in the public’s perception of their new rail project. A group of 1,000 people gathered near the city’s council building to protest the scheme. The following month, when the city’s legislative council met to approve funding, a group of 2,000 people demonstrated outside the building, and funding was put on hold. By January, the largest group of protestors reached more than 10,000 people. 

The group laid forth several valid concerns. First, while tracks in the mainland would be funded with existing government revenues, the expansion in Hong Kong called for increased taxes on the locals. Given its capacity of 100,000 daily riders, the protestors argued that the new rail would only benefit a small portion of the city’s economic elite. Furthermore, most of the daily commuters would be traveling into Hong Kong for work. When Hong Kongers used the rail, they would more likely be traveling for pleasure, and the existing rail line already served that purpose perfectly. Their point was clear—Hong Kongers didn’t want to pay for something that would primarily benefit people outside their city. 

But the concerns weren’t purely economic. In the years leading up to the XRL’s approval, the Hong Kong government had demolished two important historic areas—Star Ferry Pier and the Queen’s Pier. These structures memorialized critical event’s in Hong Kong’s history, but they were also beloved public spaces. The city government’s move to reclaim the waterfront land for more profitable infrastructure development symbolized the leadership’s willingness to make the city less liveable in the name of economic expansion.

Many pro-conservation demonstrators who fought for the two piers noticed the similarities with the XRL project, too. Building West Kowloon Terminus called for the destruction of several similarly historic areas. Choi Yuen Tsuen village, a small but historic community of about 500 Hong Kongers, would need to be dismantled for the project to move forward. Other neighborhoods that had somehow escaped the rampant noise pollution of the bustling metropolis would now have their ears assaulted by the speeding trains many times a day. 

Nevertheless, these concerns were only enough to rile up a relatively small group of like-minded people. The protestors gathered 10,000 signatures on a petition to cancel the project, but it made little difference. By January 16th, 2010, the rail was approved, and funding was secured. 

CONSTRUCTION AND COMMENCEMENT

While approving the Hong Kong XRL was a long and arduous political process, the same could not be said about the mainland. The Shenzhen and Guangzhou sections of the XRL were practically complete when work began on the Hong Kong section. Futian (foo-tee-an) Station in south Shenzhen, the last terminal before crossing into Hong Kong, was completed in 2011. But, now, the mainland began a waiting game with the long, oft-delayed construction in Hong Kong.

 Express Rail Link West Kowloon Terminus construction site
Express Rail Link West Kowloon Terminus construction site.By Hokachung, is licensed under CC-BY

One reason for the delays was that almost all of the rail in Hong Kong was subterranean. Tunneling is an expensive and labor-intensive process, but boring machines speed up that work immensely. For the Hong Kong XRL, construction crews used state-of-the-art boring machines that could be dismantled before removing them from the tunnels. But, in March of 2014, a three-month storm blasted the city, flooding the tunnels and damaging the expensive instruments. Frequent delays and cost overruns ensued, par for the course for such a project.

Finally, on September 22nd, 2018, the entire Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong XRL was inaugurated. Hong Kong’s chief executive stood within the brand new West Kowloon Terminus, leading a grand opening ceremony. The station was eye-catching, modern, and massive. As the only XRL station in the city, it marks the beginning and end of the 26-km Hong Kong section. The terminus stands boldly along the shoreline of Victoria Harbor, offering sweeping views of the magnificent Hong Kong skyline. The building has smooth, steep curves, many of which host large green spaces for locals to relax before entering the bustling terminal. West Kowloon Terminus stands 25 meters tall and covers 400,000 square meters of floor space. 

The rail line actually failed to achieve its goal of delivering passengers from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in less than an hour. Instead, the 142-kilometer trip takes about an hour and 18 minutes. Trips from Hong Kong to Shenzhen take less than 15. Despite the delays and cost overruns, the project was mostly hailed as a success. But, for many Hong Kongers, it had become a daunting symbol of impending change.

THE FINAL CONTROVERSY

The final and most hotly contested controversy of the Hong Kong XRL began about a year before the track was opened. It stemmed from a small portion of West Kowloon Terminus’s 400,000 square meter floor space. The station included something called a joint-immigration checkpoint. Since the train crosses a semi-national border, travelers have to go through an immigration process. This checkpoint allows travelers from Hong Kong to the mainland to go through that process before boarding the train, allowing quicker disembarkation across the border. In Hong Kong, this meant that Chinese law took precedent over Hong Kong law within much of the train station and on the trains. 

This revelation led to widespread protests throughout Hong Kong, as the city’s residents argued that Beijing was using the rail as a means to expand their authority in what was technically a semi-autonomous region. Critics called the station and the rail line a Trojan Horse—a covert means of politically infiltrating the city. 

Yet, the Chinese government actually had solid political cover. After all, joint-immigration checkpoints exist along many international borders. American immigration officials have offices in Toronto and Vancouver, expanding US jurisdiction into a tiny sliver of Canada. The UK, France, and Belgium have similar setups. Even in mainland China, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s government has its own immigration checkpoint. Yet, there’s one key difference. In the other examples, the countries are seen as equal partners, each negotiating with the other from equal standing. In China, the mainland sees itself as the ultimate authority over Hong Kong. Critics argue that the Chinese government saw the rail as a first step in expanding further into the semi-autonomous region.

Either way, the line opened in 2018. Over the next few years, it operated below capacity, never averaging more than 70,000 daily users in a month. In January of 2020, the entire station was shut down due to COVID protocol. Whether it will ever reach the heights that were predicted for it remains to be seen. In the meantime, authorities are looking into speeding up the train, mainly focusing on cutting-edge vehicle technology. Perhaps one day, they will finally achieve the goal of moving between Hong Kong and Guangzhou in less than an hour.

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