Tunnelling works are almost complete on a new high-speed line designed to open up Hong Kong to mainland China. It is a project that’s not short of critics, with some who question the supposed benefits of the line and others who believe it will deal a blow for Hong Kong’s independence.
Simon Tang, MTR’s general manager for the project’s tunnelling programme, felt there was still some hostility from the campaign groups and politicians who very publicly opposed the construction of the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong line, dubbed Express Rail Link (XRL), between 2009 and 2010.
Despite protests against the new line, work began on the Hong Kong section – the second phase of the route – in 2010. The following year, the Guangshen section between Guangzhou and Shenzhen officially opened.
Three years on and the seven tunnel boring machines (TBMs) currently constructing the 26 kilometre-long tunnel between Hong Kong and the Chinese border are now nearing the end of their subterranean journey. Tunnelling is around 86 per cent complete and by the end of the year, 90 per cent of the south-bound alignment should be finished.
At HKD $62.4 billion (US $8.05 billion) XRL sits comfortably in a list of the world’s most expensive infrastructure projects. But unlike the others, opposition hasn’t been heavily focussed on price. The issue for some quarters of Hong Kong is actually that the 142 kilometre line would lead to greater cultural integration with mainland China, not just stronger economic ties.
“This is a very politically sensitive project,” said Simon. “One element is that this is basically opening up Hong Kong as a southern gateway to China. There are a bunch of politicians in Hong Kong who really want to drive for the suffrage of Hong Kong. So there is one group of politicians like that. Whatever is linked or tied to China, they are against.
“The other part is that this is not a rail-to-property model, meaning along the line there is no benefit to the real estate values because we don’t have any stations in between.”
For the government, the project’s main benefit is its potential for growth. The XRL will bring Hong Kong closer to China’s prosperous economic hubs, namely the future ‘megacity’ of the Pearl River Delta (PRD). Official figures suggest that since the 1970s around 30 per cent of all foreign investment in China has centered around the PRD.
Hong Kong to Guangzhou will take less than 50 minutes. From there, passengers have access to mainland China’s 16,000 kilometres of high-speed railway.
On course to open in 2015*, the line also includes a spectacular four-floor underground terminus station in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon district, which is aiding a regeneration of the area.
Excavation of the 11-hectare site has now reached track level and work will soon begin from the bottom up, starting with the installation of the new track.
Speaking about the economic benefits, Simon said: “Hong Kong has only got about seven million people and it’s not grown much in the last five to eight years. The reason for that is that Hong Kong is a limited size. So, I think the government is trying to expand the economy by trying to get a closer integration to the Pearl River Delta Region.
“By building this and linking it with the high-speed national rail network in mainland China, then we have the benefit of a bigger economic circle.”
* Flooding in one of the tunnels has forced MTR to revise the project’s completion date to 2017