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Supporting Hong Kong’s expansion

At its peak in 1963, Hong Kong ran the busiest street tramway in the world. Its double-decker trams are an icon of the city and today those same double-deckers remain, although the tramway (since 2013 part of a French consortium with Veolia-Transdev and RATP) has changed around it. Today’s ridership is reduced from 191 to 70 million, there are slightly fewer cars and those that survive are less well-loaded. Competition from bus companies and the presence of a parallel MTR line could have contributed to this decline, although the effect of these cannot be more than an estimated 10%.

The original 1904 double-track 1067mm-gauge line runs 13.5km (8.4 miles) from west to east, Kennedy Town – Shaukeiwan, along the northern coast of Hong Kong Island.
Six routes operate, of which only one covers the whole length. There is one depot in the west, on reclaimed land near Whitty Street with a workshop, and one in the east at Sai Wan Ho, located under a highway. Both opened in 1989. Trams run from 05.00-00.00.

The changes to the famous double-decker trams go generally unnoticed by most visitors; they were rebodied in the mid-1950s and again between 1987-91. The most apparent changes are curved-corner windows (front and side), and the addition of a resistor box on the roof complete with fleet number.

A ten-year overhaul programme began in 2011, with around half of the fleet completed to date. All cars will have all-metal bodies, automatic flap gates, wooden seats with aluminium frames, LED interior lights, new destination displays and public address systems, and chopper control units to facilitate electrodynamic braking and replacement
of the dc motors with ac versions (50kW, 400V) made by China CNR Corporation.
One ‘heritage’ car remains in normal service, 120, built in 1991 to a 1950s style. It is the only one that still has a Dick Kerr controller.

For years fleet numbers stopped at 162 (with the exception of works car 200), but now run to 175 thanks to the introduction of car 163 (rebuilt from trailer 1 made by Taikoo Dockyard, trailers being abandoned in 1982) in 1979. Re-numberings took place and new cars, all ‘designed and built in Hong Kong at the HK tramways depot’ joined the fleet – including three so-called Millennium trams (168-170) in 2000, replete with aluminium bodies and large front windows. Only two still have this facing; 168 got the more usual triple end windows. There are now approximately 160 cars in regular service. Cars 28, 68 and 128 are party trams with semi-open upper decks.

Car 50 went to the Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon in 1997, and a motorless 201 stands in Ocean Park – a replica in the style of the 1950s – although about 50m of rails and overhead wire are present in this ‘Old Hong Kong Street’ that was created in 2012.

Hong Kong Tramways currently has three works cars, 200, 300 and 400, used for track cleaning, track welding and towing broken cars. Car 300 has been equipped with a diesel generator set. Most rail grinding today is undertaken by road-rail vehicles, and the original works car 200 from 1956 was scrapped in 1984.

Although air-conditioning would be no luxury in Hong Kong’s climate, trials on new car 171 were unsuccessful and never made it into passenger service. The next trial in 2014 was on new car 88 (the existing 88 became 30), currently the only one with air-conditioning aside from tourist tram 128. Plans to equip ten more cars were not realised.

Car 88 is also one of a number to wear the new HKT livery, introduced in 2017. As this prevents the use of overall advertising, one expects only a limited number of cars will carry this new scheme. All cars now feature a ‘smile’ on the bumpers.

The standard HKD2.60 (EUR0.28) fare (as of 2 July) is collected either in cash or via the Octopus smartcard that offers a 50% reduction. Payment is taken at the door, where coinboxes and card readers have been installed.

Peak Tram and LRT

Visitors to Hong Kong are blessed with a number of transport options to see the city – of these, the funicular is one of the oldest and most popular, with the first funicular going up to Victoria Peak (552m/1840ft above sea level) in 1888. The terminus, Victoria Gap, however, lies 150m lower at 1312 ft. The 1524mm-gauge route has a length of 1.4km (0.86-mile) with four intermediate request stops; the control and machine room are at the upper station.

Today, no tourist will miss a visit to the Peak and its leisure complex with shops, restaurants, a sky terrace and a Madame Tussauds waxworks museum. The current twin cars, already the fifth-generation and made by the Swiss firm Gangloff, date from 1989 and have a capacity for 120 passengers. Even with increased capacity, the Peak Tram often has the problem of demand outstripping supply. Annual fare increases have had very little influence on its popularity and its owner, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels (HSH), is looking for a solution, but the funicular has limited expansion possibilities so there are rumours about a parallel-running ropeway. Frequencies are every 15 minutes, enhanced to seven minutes at peak times. As of March 2018, adults pay HKD37 (EUR4) for a single and HKD52 (EUR5.70) for a return ticket. Service hours are from 07.00-00.00.

LRT complements the street-running trams and funicular, a system brought to fruition in part due to a huge increase in the city’s population. A programme begun in 1977 in the north-western territories sought to house this increase. Afishing village on the coast, Tuen Mun, and more to the north, Yuen Long, were spearheads and saw the construction of many 40-storey apartment blocks and large factories. Very soon, the necessity of public transport was felt. The first LRT services ran in 1988 along five routes: three from Tuen Mun to Yuen Long and two in Tuen Mun. KCR Corporation (the Kowloon-Canton Railway), a governmental organisation established in 1982, was assigned as operator. All lines are double-track and standard gauge with 750V dc overhead supply. Platforms are 1100mm high.

The rolling stock, 70 four-axle, single-deck cars, came from Commonwealth Engineering (Comeng) in Australia – resembling Melbourne’s Z cars that feature doors fitted
to the left-hand side.

However, as the population grew so did the system: there are currently 12 routes including to nearby settlements such as Tin Shui Wai, on 36.2km (22.5 miles) of track (89% segregated from other traffic). Most routes accommodate more than one line, resulting in three-minute peak frequencies.

Additional cars came from Australia (Goninan and United Group) and Japan (Kawasaki), while the latest batch in 2009 partly came from CSR Changchun in China. In total 142 cars have been delivered, all of which are in service now except one (1013); ten have no control-units and are coupled to a motorcar. All are built to the same design (20.2m long and 2.65m wide) with only the latest batch featuring a more streamlined front. Most of today’s 12 lines are operated in double-consists.

An order has been placed with CSSR Puzhen for 40 new vehicles to relieve the 1993 Kawasaki cars which, unlike the first batch, will not be revised.

Fares are operated on a zonal system, ranging from HKD4.5-6.5 (EUR0.50-0.72). Each of the 68 stops has a ticket machine, use of which is enforced by the occasional presence of onboard ticket inspectors. Octopus cards can also be used.

It is not impossible that LRT usage will soon surpass HKT and Peak passenger numbers: in 2017 180m people used the system.

Since 2007, all public transport except HKT and Peak Tram has been brought together under a single governmental organisation, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC) initially formed to execute plans for the Metro. In 2000, part of its capital went to the stock market, and one year later it was listed on the Hang Seng financial index.

Going underground

While the trams, LRT and funicular handle traffic above ground, Hong Kong also has a need for sub-surface routes and the Metro (named MTR) has seven of these, which each bear a name and colour-code.

The Green, or Kwun Tong, line was the first to be built in 1979. In 1985 the Red line to Tsuen Wan followed, and then the Blue Hong Kong Island line, running parallel with the tramway. The new century saw the next new routes: the South Island line opened in December 2016, the latest route travelling to the densely-populated island, Ap Lei Chau, connected via a bridge with Hong Kong Island.

At the same time, the first line was extended to Whampoa and the Island line to Kennedy Town. Two special lines are also worthy of mention here: the Brown or Ma On Shan line (2004), running on viaduct with 24kV ac overhead like the railways and using the same type of trains: SP 1950 from Japan’s KinkiSharyo. Secondly, the short 3.5km (2.2-mile) Disneyland Resort line (Pink; opened in 2005) runs from the theme park to the Sunny Bay railway station on Lantau in just four minutes. Four ‘Mickey Mouse-styled’ trainsets are available, but only one can occupy the single-track at any one same time with trains running every ten minutes. The fairy-decorated terminus ensures visitors to the popular theme park arrive in the right mood.

British firm Metro Cammell was awarded the sizeable rolling stock order for the first three lines, using trucks from Düwag and consisting of 671 air-conditioned motorcars and trailers running in eight-car trains.

Orders for fleet expansion went to Kinkisharyo, Hyundai Rotem and most recently CSR Changchun. Ten three-car trains delivered by CSR serve the South Island line, operating without conductor. CSR Sifang is currently delivering 744 new cars – 93 x 8 – to replace the oldest ones, between 2018-23.

The headways are six minutes or less on most routes, running 06.00-01.00. Fares are distance-based, varying from HKD4.5-14.5 (EUR0.50-1.60). Information displays and announcements are in both English and Chinese.

With more than two million daily passengers, MTR is a very profitable organisation, with an on-time rate of over 99.5%, making it one of the best performing metros in the world.

There is currently only one large project underway, the 17km (10.6 mile) Shatin Central Link (SCL) that will not only unlock the eastern part of the New Territories but also offer connections between East Rail and West Rail. From the ten planned stations, six will have interchange possibilities. It runs from Tai Wai station via Kai Tak, where the former airport was situated, to Hung Hom (ready in 2019), and from Hung Hom through a new tunnel to Admiralty on Hong Kong Island (to open in 2021).

Work began in 2012 and the rolling stock is already arriving, sourced from CSR, KinkiSharyo/Kawasaki and Hyundai-Rotem.

East and West Rail

Since 1910, the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) has connected Kowloon with Canton (Guangzhou) over 178km (110 miles) of tracks. Trade with China was and still is crucial as Hong Kong is entirely reliant on China for life’s necessities. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, through trains were finished and KCR was restricted to 35km (22 miles) on Hong Kong’s territory as far as Lo Wu. With metro routes yet to materialise, the station at Tsim Sha Tsui (South Kowloon) was too small, resulting in a new building at Hung Hom (1975), with most facilities underground.

In 1977 the government decided to modernise the route with 24kV ac/50Hz electrification, new double-track more or less parallel with the existing line, improved signalling, new trains, stations and a depot. This took six years to realise, including a 7.4km (4.6-mile) branch in the north to Lok Ma Chau, close to the Chinese port of Futian.

From 1996 the railway has been rebranded East Rail, and passenger numbers have exploded. Twelve-car trains run every six minutes, down to every three minutes in
the peaks. It is the only railway in the region with two classes: first class features upholstered cross-benches, while there is also a ‘quiet’ car. Metro Cammell manufactured these cars, with the differences to the metro cars being minimal.

KCR was swallowed by MTRC in 2007. In 2001 SP 1900 vehicles from Kinkisharyo joined the fleet and from 2018, 37 nine-car R-stock sets from Hyundai Rotem will gradually replace the original stock.

Goods traffic on this important route mostly runs overnight and MTR uses five Siemens ER20 ‘Eurorunner’ diesel locomotives, as well as some older locomotives, to take over services from China.

Through trains were scantily introduced in 1979, but 1997 saw more trains running. This ‘Guangdong’ line is operated by both MTRC and China Rail; the latter uses SS8 electric locomotives and single-deck coaches, while the Kowloon through-train (Ktt) consists of double-deck coaches with type 2000 locomotives from SLM and Adtranz at both ends. Trains cover the distance with one stop every two hours, 12 times a day. A single fare is HKD210 (EUR36) with one daily train as far as Beijing or Shanghai.

Next year this picture may change totally as the China Railway High Speed (CRH) line from Beijing via Wuhan to Shenzhen is to be extended by 26km (16 miles) to a dedicated new station in West Kowloon. This route runs entirely in-tunnel, a project that has taken nine years so far, and when complete it will be the world’s longest high-speed railway at 2230km (1385 miles). At the ‘Main Works Completion Ceremony’ on 23 March, the name was announced as ‘Vibrant Express’, chosen by the public – trains will run every 15 minutes.

Cross-border to Shenzhen

Hong Kong may now have joined the Peoples’ Republic, but border crossings have changed little: visas, currency exchange, intensive checking and long waiting times are just as before. But having passed through, one emerges into China’s fastest-growing and richest city.

Just 40 years ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing-focused town with 30 000 inhabitants. In 1979 a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was established to attract work from Hong Kong’s super-heated economy and developments rolled fast, resulting in a city with more than ten million current inhabitants.

The local administration opted for an integrated transport system, starting in 2004, and the city now owns eight metro lines (also called MTR), with seven more under construction and four more planned. With six-car trains of Chinese origin, MTR uses overhead wire, and is very user-friendly with announcements in both Chinese and English. The Szenzhen Tong smartcard is popular with users, short trips costing CNY2 (EUR0.27).

Metro line 4 has a temporary terminus at Qinghu in the Longhua district. An extension with eight stops will be realised later, although in the meantime the three-route 11.7km (7.3-mile) SZTram covers the area. Two lines start at Qinghu and split at DaHe, with one going to Xiawei and the other to Xinlan. These two termini are connected by the third line.
All opened in October 2017 after four years of construction.

The rolling stock, 15 four-car sets, were built by CRRC Zhuzhou and as is usual in China, battery-operation replaces overhead lines with at-stop recharging in about 20 seconds. A standard fare of CNY2 (EUR0.27) is charged. When metro line 4 reaches its conclusion, one expects the tram will serve as a feeder line.

High-speed to Lantau

The fastest way to reach Tuen Mun in the New Territories from Hong Kong Island used to be by hydrofoil. Unfortunately, this ceased at the end of last century, substituted by a
bus service, until West Rail opened in 2003. This line runs 30.5km (19.1 miles) from
Hung Hom station, underground to Yuen Long and further on viaducts to Tuen
Mun with connections to the LRT lines. Less frequented than East Rail, here eight-car trains handle service easily, all SP 1900 units from KinkiSharyo.

In 2015, Thales won a contract to modernise and maintain MTR signalling, now testing on East Rail.

The biggest island of the New Territories, Lantau was not particularly well developed before the new airport arrived in 1998. For its construction, the little island Chek Lap Kok was connected to Lantau via land reclamation. At the same time two new rail routes opened: the Airport Express and the Tung Chung line, named after a village there.

Both high-speed lines start at Hong Kong Central and share track; the Airport Express runs underground to Kowloon where it stops at a new station with one more stop on the island of Tsing Yi. The Tung Chung line has one stop more at Sunny Bay. At its terminus one can change to Ngong Ping 360: a ropeway that brings passengers 5.7km (3.5 miles) farther to the cultural-themed village of Ngong Ping in 23 minutes. Here a big bronze Buddha statue overlooks the bustle of shops and restaurants, so characteristic of Chinese showplaces. Return tickets cost HKD210 (EUR23) or HKD290/EUR32 for a cabin with a transparent floor.

The Airport Express was extended one stop to the Asia World Expo in 2005. Air tourists can check-in at Hung Hom and Kowloon stations with the blue-coloured trains having the first car reserved for luggage. Nine bus lines run from Hung Hom and Kowloon to
all the big hotels free of charge.

The high-speed trains have eight cars from CAF and Adtranz (now Bombardier). The rolling stock of the Tung Chung line is the same, but brown in colour. Each line has a headway of ten minutes; a single ticket to the airport costs HKD115 (EUR12.60), although with the Octopus smartcard this is much cheaper.

Of course there are extension plans like the ‘Northern Link’ between West Rail and the Chinese border at Lok Ma Chau. But whatever plans may occur in future, Hong Kong has managed to create in just 40 years a very efficient public transport system that covers almost the whole region.

Article originally featured in August 2018 TAUT (968).