Hong Kong’s railway operator has ordered HK$6 billion worth of trains from China, in an effort to replace the city’s fleet of UK-made first-generation locomotives, which have been in service for up to 36 years.

In a statement released on Wednesday, MTR Corporation said that an order for 93 new eight-car trains had been placed, the largest-ever order of new trains for the company. The new trains will be delivered between 2018 and 2023.

Virtual image of new trains ordered by the MTR. Photo: MTR.

The trains, equipped with a new dynamic route map and new signalling systems, will run on the Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, Island and Tseung Kwan O lines. They will also be installed with double-branched handrails for standing passengers.  The China-made fleet will be produced by CSR Qingdao Sifang Co Ltd., a leading manufacturer based in Shandong Province.

The new builds will replace all first-generation MTR trains, which were manufactured by Birmingham-based Metro Cammell. Dubbed the “M-trains”, the vehicles first entered service between 1979 and 1998 and were refurbished by Australia’s United Goninan company from 1998 to 2001, extending their lifespan by 20 years.

Interior of an MTR train built by Metro-Cammell. Photo: Wikimedia.

In light of public concerns regarding the safety of China-made locomotives, the MTRC added that there will be staff “stationed full-time at the factory to quality-assure the manufacturing and assembly processes.” It added that rigorous testing will be conducted, and that trains must be certified by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department before they enter service.

The railway operator has also bought 10 sets of trains from Changchun Railway Vehicles for the newly constructed South Island Line (East), which is expected to open by the end of 2016.

MTRC first began introducing China-made trains in 2011. A batch of 22 of so-called “C-train” were assembled by the Changchun Railway Vehicles, a subsidiary of China CNR Corporation. These trains are currently running on the Kwun Tong and Tseung Kwan O lines.

China-made MTR train running on Kwun Tong line. Photo: WikiMedia.

Problems arose, however, when the C-trains were tested in Hong Kong. A signaling fault during testing caused trains to run red lights, and a mismatch in the height of the platforms and train doors was discovered once the trains entered service. The trains were decommissioned for two days while engineers fixed the discrepancy.

In 2014, New Zealand railway operator KikiRail found that trains built by another subsidiary of the China CNR Corporation contained carcinogenic asbestos material. MTRC subsequently conducted tests on its C-trains, and verified that asbestos materials were not used in the Hong Kong builds.

In April, MTRC Chief Executive Officer Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen praised the “made in China” trains as having a higher quality than trains assembled overseas.

MTR’s Kowloon Bay depot. Photo: WikiMedia.

Previously, problems were also discovered on Hong Kong trains assembled by overseas companies. In 2007, a Japanese train short-circuited and caught fire while running on the West Rail Line, injuring 11. In 2005, water seepage was also found on Spanish trains operating on the Tung Chung Line.

Eric Cheung

Eric is currently a Bachelor of Journalism student at the University of Hong Kong. Eric has his finger on the pulse of Hong Kong events and politics. His work has been published on The Guardian, Reuters and ABC News (America).