26 August 2019
The Express Rail Link project will be reduced to a mere "faster through-train" if a co-location arrangement is not implemented. Photo: Interne
The Express Rail Link project will be reduced to a mere "faster through-train" if a co-location arrangement is not implemented. Photo: Interne

Will the HK Express Rail Link become a white elephant?

The Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL) has not only overrun in its budget, its economic benefit is also now in question in view of issues pertaining to “co-location of boundary control”.

Frederick Ma Si-hang, chairman of the MTR Corp.’s independent board committee, said if the government could not figure out a way to implement co-location arrangements at the West Kowloon Terminus, then the rail link will be reduced to “a faster through-train” and lose almost all of its economic value.

According to research done by the Transport and Housing Bureau, the XRL will save approximately 42 million hours of traveling time annually, bringing up to HK$87 billion (US$11.2 billion) in economic benefits in 50 years.

However, such savings would only be possible if there is a co-location arrangement that would allow passengers to go though immigration and customs procedures for both mainland China and Hong Kong at the same place, which is the West Kowloon Terminus.

Without this arrangement, passengers from the mainland China will have to go through immigration and customs checks in Shenzhen and then do the same thing at a control point in the West Kowloon Terminus. The process may take up hours as each express rail journey carries thousands of passengers.

So if the co-location issue remains unresolved by the time the XRL goes into full operation, “this will turn into something which we do not need to do in the first place, and it is against the government and our intentions”, Ma said in an interview with TVB News.

If that’s the case, the XRL will most likely end up a white elephant.

Hong Kong legislators have been warning against such problems for years. But co-location is a thorny matter that involves legal and constitutional issues.

Under the Basic Law, mainland law enforcement officers are not allowed to perform their duties within the Hong Kong territory, which is exactly a prerequisite for a co-location control arrangement.

Implementing the arrangement is even more complex. Consider this: if a Hong Kong criminal is able to take an express rail train going to China but is later caught by mainland police along the way, which law should be followed? Hong Kong’s or the mainland’s?

Hong Kong legislators may have to amend some laws in order to implement the co-location arrangement. But the issue may prove to be extremely sensitive, especially in light of the ongoing pro-democracy protests.

The project has encountered so many challenges. Tsoi Yuen Tsuen, in Sheung Shui in the northern part of the New Territories, is one of the sites where homes had to be demolished to make way for the express rail. The villagers had to struggle for years to seek just compensation and build their new homes.

And the cost of the project has skyrocketed over the years. The initial budget was around HK$40 billion, but now the estimated cost has nearly doubled to HK$71.5 billion. Experts said the final costs will be even higher.

What’s more, the damaged boring machines, flooded tunnels and labor shortages have caused serious delays in the project.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, Secretary for Transport and Housing, has said the government intends to finish the project. But if officials don’t push hard for the implementation of the co-location arrangement, the value of the massive project would be greatly diminished.

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EJ Insight writer

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