Please mind the gap – between reality and the XRL service

October 05, 2018 20:02
Though Hong Kong people have a pronounced inclination to try out new projects, they hardly flocked to fill the new trains. Photo: Reuters

The mendacity surrounding the new Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Rail link (XRL) is quickly unraveling as we discover that more or less everything of importance that was said about this project has turned out to be truth-challenged. There is one exception but we’ll come to that later.

In the latest attempt to put a brave face on this quickly unraveling farce, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam says that business will surely pick up once the nearby West Kowloon Cultural Hub, or whatever it’s called, opens. Yes, of course, the hordes of Guangzhou denizens are gagging to visit this other White Elephant project and when that happens it will be standing room only – or maybe not.

Then there was some fighting talk from the MTRC chairman, Frederick Ma. Remember him? He’s the fellow who consistently ducked responsibility for the recent scandal surrounding serious faults in the construction of the Sha Tin to Central rail link on the grounds that everyone else was to blame. This might just have worked had it not been revealed that the board he leads knowingly misled the public about what was going on – and Ma himself was intimately involved in the cover-ups. Now he is saying that his main worry about the new express train service is that it will lack capacity to meet demand.

To be fair, it’s early days for the new train service and the chances of business improving remain, although precedents strongly suggest that services of this kind that get off to a slow start rarely accelerate to success.

From day one of operation things have not looked good; even though Hong Kong people have a pronounced inclination to try out new projects, they hardly flocked to fill the trains. Then Golden Week came and went on the mainland, when cross-border passenger traffic peaks, and it was the same story.

Initially, it was claimed that 110,000 people would use the train every day. That number was then cut to 80,000 and now even this figure is being disowned with Ms. Lam, saying it was never a target, merely an "estimate". In reality on most days the train service is carrying half this number of people.

And why is that? The main reason is that people are not stupid. They now realize that the much publicized journey time of 48 minutes from Hong Kong to Guangzhou is pure fiction because it only applies to non-stopping trains. Most journeys take about one hour but the problem is that the train goes to the Guangzhou South station, which is far away from the city center, requiring at least another half hour to reach the places most people want to go.

The existing service to the much better located East Guangzhou station makes the total journey time more or the less the same but tickets for the existing through train from Hung Hom are some 20 percent cheaper. Even greater savings are made by passengers using the MTR to go to Lo Wu and then onto Guangzhou with a fast train from Shenzhen. If they start out from the New Territories, where most people live, they will actually enjoy a faster journey with a greater choice of trains from the Shenzhen station.

So, they lied about the journey time but before that, they lied about the cost of the project. The initial budget, presented with much fanfare, totaled almost HK$67 billion; the eventual cost came to over HK$85 billion. That’s an increase exceeding 26 percent. Moreover, this final price tag does not include a host of ancillary works that are integral to the project but accounted for separately to keep the headline figures down.

On top of this is the "small" matter of a three-year delay in getting the train in operation, a delay punctuated by assurances that everything was on schedule.

As if all this were not enough, the government was coy to the point of mendacity in not making it clear that the West Kowloon terminal was going to operate under the mainland’s jurisdiction. This blatant breach of the Basic Law only became fully apparent when officials finally got around to coming to Legco to get their tame supporters to nod through the so-called joint checkpoint plan for the station, a form of wording designed to obscure the reality of the Basic Law breach.

If anyone was foolish enough to believe that the main purpose of this project was transportation, there are numerous grounds for disillusionment. However, as Carrie Lam made clear in her National Day speech on 1 October, the main aim of projects like this is to pursue integration with the mainland. This is a political imperative and in this respect, it may be described as success. But it comes at a very high price for Hong Kong citizens, in every sense of the word.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author