THE completion of construction of the 26km underground portion in Hong Kong of the Hong Kong - Shenzhen - Guangzhou Express Rail Link (XRL) was officially marked with a ceremony at the new terminal at Kowloon West on March 23, when it was announced that the new Hong Kong - Guangzhou shuttle service will be marketed as Vibrant Express.

“We look forward to the completion of the Express Rail Link, a major project which will bring Hong Kong a better future,” Mrs Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, said on March 23. “The project has gone through years of planning and various challenges during its construction.”



This was confirmed by MTR Corporation’s chairman Professor Frederick Ma: “The construction of this cross-boundary railway connection has never been an easy feat,” he said. “We have overcome various challenges during the past few years and it is exciting to see that the railway is ready to proceed to its trial operations. In the coming months, we will continue to make our best endeavours to get ready for commissioning the rail service this September.”

MTR was asked in 2008 by Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government to plan, design and construct the Hong Kong section of XRL, and work started in January 2010.

It was always recognised that constructing such a long tunnel designed for 200km/h operation through geologically-diverse terrain and beneath the densely-populated area at the Kowloon end of the line, including the large underground terminal at West Kowloon, would be challenging.

As work progressed, a series of complex and unrecorded underground utilities networks was discovered which MTR says could not have been foreseen. According to Dr Philco Wong, MTR’s projects director, the ground conditions were worse than envisaged during the design phase. MTR also had to contend with delayed site handovers, while in March 2014 a severe storm caused flooding in one of the tunnels, damaging the tunnel boring machine and causing a three-month delay.

Several measures were taken in a bid to compensate for the delays such as the purchase of an additional tunnel boring machine to speed up the tunnelling. “We redesigned the construction methodology to overcome the poor ground conditions to mitigate the time loss,” Wong says.

MTR has considerable experience of building tunnels in Hong Kong for the metro during the last 40 years. “We bore tunnels in soft ground and clay, but the XRL tunnel is different from the metro tunnels as it is a twin-bore tunnel, and there was no requirement in the past for cross passages,” Wong explains. As the ground was very soft and suffered from water ingress the 107 cross passages had to be excavated by machine using ground freezing techniques, which Wong says was new to MTR.

“We had not planned for any blasting works, but we decided to introduce blasting to save time,” Wong says. “Our major concerns were the effects of vibrations and flying fine fragments. So we designed protective measures such as fencing and the use of electronic delays to reduce vibrations. This cost more, but it achieved time savings.”

Blasting was undertaken in rock on two sections of the new line. MTR also used cut-and-cover tunnelling to build West Kowloon station as well as the train stabling sidings and emergency rescue siding at Shek Kong about half way along the tunnel. In addition to the rescue siding, the seven ventilation shafts along the tunnel can be used to evacuate passengers.

MTR was also faced with a shortage of skilled workers in the Hong Kong construction industry. In order to overcome this, MTR assisted its contractors in the recruitment of workers, helping them to organise recruitment fairs, supporting the applications of contractors to bring workers into Hong Kong, and supporting the “First-Hire-Then-Train” scheme for use on the project. At its peak, the XRL workforce comprised more than 8000 construction workers, technical and professional staff.

“The line was supposed to open around the end of 2015, and the current target is the third quarter of 2018, but the project would have taken even longer without the mitigation measures that we applied,” Wong says.

Wong describes West Kowloon station as a unique high-speed terminal due to its size and construction. It has required the excavation of 300m3 of rock, and is surrounded by roads and residential areas. It covers an area of 400,000m2 and has four main levels predominantly underground. The platforms are 20m below street level. There will eventually be 15 platform tracks, of which nine will be for long-distance services and six for shuttle trains to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. However, only 10 platform tracks (six long-distance and four shuttle) will be in use when XRL opens.

The station will have customs, immigration and quarantine facilities. At present, passengers have to pass through these facilities in both Hong Kong and in mainland China, but when XRL opens they will only have to do so in Hong Kong. The station also has departure and arrival halls, duty-free and catering outlets, and parking and loading facilities.

West Kowloon station’s huge roof has 4000 curved glazing panels, each of which is a different size, which made it very difficult to assemble. But it was worth the effort, as Wong points out. “It will provide an open space with sunlight, which will make it very pleasant for passengers,” Wong says. “There are only nine columns within a 10,000m2 area.” There will be a 3-hectare green area on top of West Kowloon station and neighbouring roads, which will be landscaped with plants and trees for public use.

A three-tier road system has been built to increase capacity and improve traffic flows in the area, along with seven footbridges and two pedestrian subways to connect the station with the two nearby MTR stations of Kowloon and Austin, as well as West Kowloon Bus Terminus, and West Kowloon Cultural District.

In 2015, a report revealed that the XRL was likely to exceed its original budget by 30%. MTR says the final cost is now expected to be $HK 84.4bn ($US 10.75bn). “The cost of the project has been discussed during the last three years, and we have worked with the government to apply additional funding, but the project is still viable,” Wong explains. “The XRL project is 100% funded by the government - MTR is just the project manager.”

Delivery of the nine CRRC Qingdao Sifang high-speed trains required for the shuttle service was completed in August 2017, when a reliability run also took place to accumulate mileage on the trains before trial operation started.

MTR organised XRL Train Open Days in October 2017 with guided tours, information about the line and other experiential entertainment, to help build passengers’ familiarity with the new railway. Around 4000 visitors attended the open days.

While test running has been underway on the mainland for some time, it started in Hong Kong on April 1 but was temporarily interrupted by a derailment in Shek Kong depot. “The derailment was not caused by the train or the rails,” Wong explains. “A structural element supporting the track failed.”

By early April, MTR had substantially completed training for around 50 drivers. MTR will need around 300 people to operate XRL initially, while China Railway Corporation (CRC) crews will operate the long-distance high-speed trains into Hong Kong.

The eight-car shuttle trains, a derivative of the CRH380A used by CRC, have a driving trailer at each end and six motorised cars in between. They have a maximum speed of 350km/h although they will be restricted to 200km/h on XRL. Two classes of accommodation will be provided, with a maximum seating capacity of 579. Power sockets for three different types of plug are provided at each seat, along with a ceiling-mounted video entertainment and information system.

Three-minute headways

XRL is designed for three-minute headways and MTR says it will operate at this frequency from the outset. MTR and Guangzhou Railway Company (GRC) plan to operate 114 shuttle trains in each direction daily between West Kowloon and Guangzhou South. “Futian will be the first stop in Shenzhen, but we are discussing with GRC whether to have more intermediate stops,” Wong says. Guangzhou South is a major hub with connections to the rest of mainland China’s national high-speed rail network. There will also be 13 long-distance trains per day serving 14 major mainland cities across China including Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan.

A journey time of 14 minutes is planned between West Kowloon and Futian, while the trip from Hong Kong to Guangzhou South will take 48 minutes.

It is estimated that during the first year of operation, over 100,000 passengers per day will travel between Hong Kong and the mainland using XRL, increasing to around 150,000 by 2031. This compares with the 308,000 passengers that currently use MTR’s East Rail services each day to Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau to cross the border into Shenzhen, plus the 10,000 passengers per day using the inter-city trains between Hong Kong and cities in mainland China.

After negotiations with CRC, the Hong Kong government announced that fares for the 26km trip on XRL between West Kowloon and Futian will be $HK 80. MTR and the government are still discussing details about the concession arrangements.

The existing inter-city though service between Hung Hom in Kowloon and mainland China using conventional trains will continue to operate after XRL opens as MTR wants to offer passengers a choice for cross-border train services.

Valuable experience

MTR says delivering the Hong Kong section of the XRL from scratch threw up some significant challenges, but also provided it with valuable experience to take to other markets across the world which are preparing or considering the implementation of high-speed rail networks. “In addition to a series of industrial best practices, with the simultaneous construction of five major projects in Hong Kong within both greenfield and brownfield sites, MTR has strengthened and enhanced reporting, and checks and balance mechanisms,” MTR says. “This has given improved transparency and early warning of potential issues, such as those seen with the XRL, so that mitigation and recovery measures can be implemented as early in the process as possible.”

Wong admits that with the benefit of hindsight, MTR would do some things differently, such as the way West Kowloon station was constructed. “If we had to it again, we would have two contracts, one for excavating the hole, and another for constructing the station, but we only had one contract. The reason why we did that was because of a time constraint to connect the line to the Chinese high-speed network.”

MTR says the opening of the new line will unlock a host of wider social and economic benefits for Hong Kong. “Gaining access for the first time to mainland China’s high-speed rail network will have significant benefits for Hong Kong as it looks to cement its position as a regional transport hub, and enhance the economic development in Hong Kong and cultural exchange with the mainland,” MTR says. “According to the government’s estimates, over a 50-year period, the Hong Kong section of the XRL will save passengers around 39 million hours of travelling time per year and deliver discounted economic benefits of $HK 90bn.

“The reduced travel times and ease of access between Hong Kong and the mainland will also result in a closer relationship between the two, with Hong Kong’s financial services, trading and professional services industries standing to benefit, and tourism expected to gain a significant boost,” MTR concludes.


More challenges to the north

CONSTRUCTION of the 116km northern part of XRL in mainland China, which has a maximum speed of 350km/h, started in 2005. The section between Guangzhou South and Shenzhen North was completed in December 2011, followed by the final section to Futian in the centre of Shenzhen in December 2015.

This part of XRL also faced a number of technical challenges. It has five tunnels including a 10.8km tunnel under the Pearl River, while the 10km section south of Shenzhen North to the border with Hong Kong is entirely underground.
Futian station is one of the largest underground stations in Asia and the first underground high-speed station in China. It covers 147,000m3 and has three underground levels, with the deepest point 32m below street level.

Futian station has four terminating tracks with two island platforms for high-speed services to Guangzhou and beyond, and four through tracks also with two island platforms for through services to Hong Kong. It is also served by three metro lines, including Line 11 serving Shenzhen Airport, which add another six tracks.