Hong Kong’s transport chief Frank Chan said on Friday that the government will look into increasing the number of trains for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link if there is sufficient passenger demand.

The government announced on Thursday that the HK$84.4 billion Express Rail Link will become operational on September 23. It will offer trains to 44 destinations, which Chan said was more than initial expectations.

Frank Chan Express Rail Link
Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan.

Chan estimated that, on average, there will be more than 80,000 daily passengers riding on the Express Rail Link in the first year of its operation. The government had projected in 2015 that the number would be 109,000.

“We used a calculation method commonly used worldwide. I don’t think there was a deliberate adjustment of the numbers,” Chan said on a Friday radio programme.

Chan said that he wanted to make a conservative estimate, and that he believed the number would climb gradually.

“With a new [transportation] system, there is an adjustment period for citizens and passengers, and we want to make a more conservative estimate that we are confident we can achieve,” he said.

mtr express rail link
Photo: MTRC.

The government announced that there will be up to 114 pairs of short-haul trains per day, but there will only be three daily pairs of direct trains to Guangzhou South and one to Beijing.

Chan said that the number of trains could be increased given adequate demand.

“We have reached a consensus with the mainland authorities. If the passenger capacity is filled up to a certain point, we will start the process of increasing the number of trains,” Chan said, adding that the threshold would be around 70 to 80 percent.

Financial arrangement

The MTR Corporation was awarded a ten-year operation agreement for the Express Rail Link, which included a “patronage adjustment” arrangement.

Express Rail Link
From left: MTRC Operations Director Adi Lau, MTRC CEO Lincoln Leong, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan, Deputy Secretary for Transport and Housing (Transport) Kevin Choi.

If the number of railway passengers deviates from the estimate by more than 15 per cent, the upside or downside will be shared between the MTRC and the government. If the deviation is within 15 per cent, the MTRC will bear the financial consequences.

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan criticised the arrangement, saying that the government has effectively insured the MTRC from suffering financial loss.

In response, Frank Chan said on Friday that the MTRC, being a listed company with shareholders, would not have agreed to operate the railway in the first place if it expected to lose money.

He added that the public should not focus on whether the Express Rail Link can turn a profit. He said the railway is more similar to infrastructure projects, which are meant to boost the economy indirectly.

mtr express rail link station
Express Rail Link station. Photo: MTRC.

Lawmaker Michael Tien, who chairs the legislature’s committee on railway matters, said that the newly revised passenger estimate – despite being lower than that of 2015 – may have helped the government’s negotiations with the MTRC.

He said that if the earlier passenger estimate turned out to be overblown, the MTRC might be less willing to agree on a deal to operate the railway.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.