Oct 01, 2009|
One thing our government never seems to tire of is infrastructure. As if we didn’t have plenty of underused roads, tunnels, railways and bridges, now they are planning to build yet another new train, the “Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link” (or “XRL”), which according to claims will take people from West Kowloon to Shenzhen in 30 minutes and to Guangzhou in 48 minutes. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone—a survey in May by the City University’s Division of Social Studies revealed that 50 percent of Hongkongers have never heard of it, while those who had knew very little about the details of this huge infrastructure project, nor that construction is supposed to begin by the end of the year. This, despite the fact that it will cost an estimated $63 billion of public money, meaning that every Hongkonger will be kicking in about $9,000 to build it. And then there’s the fact that future ticket prices might be as high as $400. And wait, the new Guangzhou terminal is not even located in the Guangzhou city center. So what’s going on here?
The first problem with the proposed railway is the cost. The original estimated cost was $39.5 billion, but sources within the MTR now say that the actual cost has skyrocketed to $63 billion. That breaks down to about $9,000 per taxpayer. The Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Chang said in a recent panel meeting that it was too early to comment on whether this will in fact be the final cost, but she admitted that the capital for the construction materials has gone up by 48 percent. Considering the project may demand $9,000 from each of us, it’s worth asking how much the average Hong Konger will really benefit from it.
Chu Hoi-dick, an activist from the new NGO Slow Development HK, doubts the project is financially viable. In a Legco paper last year, the government claimed the new train line would generate $83 billon worth of economic benefits over the next 50 years, taking into account the time saved for cross-border rail passengers and other general road users, and the costs saved for operators. But an $83 billion return in 50 years is “very small,” Chu says. “And since the Hong Kong section will involve a tunnel that runs underground, the maintenance fee will be much higher than on the mainland portion of the track.”
One of the main reasons for this huge expenditure is that the new railway will be completely independent of the existing railway in the western New Territories (the West Rail), according to Albert Lai, a civil engineer and also the chairman of the Professional Commons. Lai says this also means we are choosing not to add value to the new towns in the New Territories which were constructed around the West Rail. If we used the existing railway, he explains, “it would have boosted the local economy and created more job opportunities for people living in those districts.”
On top of this, having the new railway terminate in West Kowloon only further increases the costs because the construction will take place near a city center. There is also the worry that construction will result in serious traffic jams in the area as people try to get to the station, and further, with the proposed railway being 70 meters underground, many are going to find just getting there inconvenient to begin with.
In light of these large costs, many experts question why we need another train line to begin with. Some legislators are quite vocal about how many people will use the train, citing an MTR report that says up to 99,000 people will be using it per day. But critics are quite skeptical about these numbers. Remember the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor highway? The government predicted 29,800 vehicles would be using it per day, but it turns out it only gets 5,899 daily trips at present.
Legislator Ronny Tong also questions how the MTR came up with these numbers. For one thing, Tong explains, it’s difficult to predict usage when you don’t know exactly how much a ticket will cost. If the train is to recoup its losses, a ticket should cost not less than $400, according to a transport expert from the China, Hong Kong and Macau Boundary Crossing Bus Association. “The MTR spokesperson says they assumed the fare would be the same as that of the existing through train (about $190), but if that’s the case, the government will have to subsidize about $200 per journey,” Tong says.
But the cost of tickets shouldn’t be the only concern about the economic viability of the train. Infrastructure is also important. But on this point too, experts are quick to say the government hasn’t thought through the plan clearly. Dr. Ng from the Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management at HKU believes there could be economic benefits in connecting Hong Kong to the national railway on the mainland, but the government is “not thinking about how to make the most from the Hong Kong section to benefit the people.” Dr. Ng believes the government lacks a strategic picture when it comes to planning the Hong Kong section. “They need to communicate more clearly with the public to show their vision and leadership,” she says.
Tong worries about the economic impact this train line will have on the already existing infrastructure. He says the usage rate of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor is only 20 percent of what was first expected. With the new link in place, we could end up with two white elephants. Tong cites similar examples of unnecessary and expensive rail links in Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
But worse than that, the 50-year-old Choi Yuen Village in Sheung Shui will have to be destroyed to make way for the new railway. Since the end of last year, residents of the village in Sheung Shui have been fighting to preserve their homes, which are flagged for destruction to make way for the new rail line.
As the current plans stand, the village and neighboring farmland will be demolished in order to build maintenance facilities for the line—namely an emergency rescue station (ERS) and stabling sidings (SSS). Village representative Ko Chuen-heung has been battling the planners for 11 months, and she believes the government is not truly committed to exploring alternative plans. “They insist that the current proposal has the least impact on households, but their methodology leading to that conclusion seems dubious,” she says, noting that the MTR assumes one storey equals one household when making their calculations.
Leung Kai-chi, professor of the Department of Geography at Hong Kong University, has been helping villagers submit alternative proposals to the government, including one that moves the maintenance facilities to the nearby (and under-used) Shek Kong Barracks. He too questions the MTR’s research methods, pointing out that the affected area has suddenly appeared much broader in a new version of the plans. In mid-August, he submitted an alternate proposal to the government, moving the emergency rescue station southeast by 270 meters. If implemented, this would save the village from destruction.
In response to his plan, the government said he was right but that if the People’s Liberation Army were to move, the government would have to pay all costs and expenses. Of course, either way the government has to move people—either the PLA or the village. It seems that they prefer to move the latter.
Not only will they have to tear down a village to make way for the new railway, they will also have to build a tunnel under Mai Po Marshes and two country parks. So the question arises, how will this construction affect the wildlife in this, one of Hong Kong’s most secluded slices of nature.
In mid-September, the Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE) gave the railway a conditional pass in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). However, activists have blasted the report for its sloppiness. The crude survey methods have been called into question, particularly with regard to the project’s impact on wildlife. For instance, the only insects included in the survey are “species of concern,” such as butterflies and dragonflies, and the potential change in the overall local ecosystem has not been taken into account. More worryingly, the underground tunnel is scheduled to pass underneath the Mai Po Marshes, where many migratory birds make their home. This may disturb the water distribution in the area, ultimately leading to a drought in one of Hong Kong’s most famous nature reserves.
Friends of the Earth chairman Edwin Lau was the only member of the ACE that voted against the proposal. “The purpose of conducting an environmental assessment is to avoid any possible problems, not to mitigate them when they happen,” he says. “When I enquired about whether the construction would affect the water in the marshes, I was told: ‘it should be fine’ according to the MTR’s past experiences and its computer-generated model.” Lau also wonders what the impact of construction will be on the wildlife in the area, much of which is very sensitive to human-generated noise and vibrations. The company has not yet submitted a contingency plan, should such problems arise.
The Legco Transport Panel has passed a motion urging the government to reconsider the feasibility of this railway project, and to launch another public consultation on it (perhaps a good idea when only 50 percent of people in the city are aware of this project in the first place). But unfortunately the panel does not have any legislative power under the current political system. With lots of important details still missing, let’s hope the project doesn’t push ahead while so many of us remain in the dark.