Well this may be a rude question, but the arrival of a new train for the new Express Rail Link/white elephant/co-location catastrophe had me wondering. Why are we paying for the trains? According to Global Rail News, which takes an interest in these things, the one which arrived the other week was actually the third. The first two arrived before the rails were ready so they came by sea. Why they could not wait was not mentioned. There will – in due course, apparently – be another six, bringing the grand total to nine.

Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link
A train of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link. Photo: MTR.

Now let us assume that the official figure for a trip to Guangzhou – 48 minutes – is accurate. Allow a few hours a day for maintenance, cleaning and such we can hope to see each train do maybe 10 return trips. This means with nine trains, assuming journeys go all the way to Guangzhou, which of course they may not, “our” trains can manage about 90 trips. According to a leaked document published in Ming Pao recently, there will be 190 trains a day in our extravagant new station. This is an interesting figure. It appears actually that planning has proceeded on the basis that about half of the trains which are going to visit Kowloon should be paid for by the Hong Kong taxpayer, even though four fifths of the line between here and Guangzhou is in China.

This was very accommodating of us. Shenzhen officials have been complaining for years that their part of the line is losing money, a deficiency which they fondly hope will be remedied when travellers can carry on to Hong Kong. Why can the existing trains not just extend their journeys another 30 km? It is difficult to believe that having us as the new end of the line is going to double the existing traffic.

Express Rail Link construction site. Photo: GovHK.

By coincidence my last holiday included a trip by train from London to Edinburgh. Nowadays this takes a little over four hours. The distance is about 400 miles so the train averages about 100 miles an hour. Top speed is about 120, same as our tunnel. This is not considered worth making a fuss about. The train runs on the same rails that the old steam trains used. In fact it passes a small memorial on one stretch of track reporting that at that spot a steam locomotive named Mallard did 125 mph in 1938. This was, and still is, the record for steam propulsion. We really haven’t come very far.

And as far as the Express Rail Link is concerned we are not going to be going very fast either. According to Ming Pao, of the 190 trains a day in the planning document, only seven will skip the first new station on the line – Futian in Shenzhen – and only one (one!) will actually go non-stop to Guangzhou.

express rail link carrie lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam visiting one of the high-speed trains that will be used on the Express Rail Link. Photo: GovHK.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of LegCo’s Panel on Transport, reportedly told Ming Pao that the arrangement was appropriate as most passengers’ destinations were Futian or Shenzhen North, and Guangzhou South was only an interchange station to other mainland cities, so if trains did not stop at other stations the service would not be sustainable. But this is not what we were told when we were invited to pony up 80 megabucks for the new line. It was not supposed to provide a faster link to Shenzhen. If Guangzhou South is only an interchange station for other Chinese cities we are going to pay through the nose for an alternative to air travel which will only appeal to very nervous fliers.

Michael Tien
Michael Tien. File Photo: LegCo.

High speed rail technology is totally unsuitable for providing local services. According to Dr Jean-Paul Rodrigue (whose book The Geography of Transport Systems can be perused here): “A distance of 50 km is often considered a minimum, leaving enough for trains to accelerate and reach cruising speed. Servicing too many stations undermines the rationale of high speed systems…” This is an interesting view in the light of the distance between Hong Kong and Shenzhen (29 km). There is another 100 km to go to Guangzhou, but the latest maps show four intermediate stations on that part of the trip, so we may suppose them to be on average about 20 km apart.

Politics, I fear, have trumped technology. Prepare for an expensive experience.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.