A ride into the future
Rail travel in the SAR enters a new era with the opening of the city’s section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link today. He Shusi reports.
When the first high-speed train rolls out of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station at 7 am on Sept 23, it will mark a turning point in the rapidly evolving Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area economic initiative.
The 26-kilometer-long Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link will enable commuters to make the trip from the heart of Hong Kong to Shenzhen’s central business district in 14 minutes, and to the Guangdong provincial capital Guangzhou in just 47 minutes, shaving off almost an hour’s travel time on the traditional intercity trains or cross-boundary coaches.
The XRL is projected to carry more than 80,000 passengers daily between the special administrative region and the Chinese mainland by the end of this year, according to Hong Kong’s Transport and Housing Bureau.
That would result in closer cross-boundary cooperation, better communication and more rapid development of what’s expected to become one of the world’s premier economic clusters by assembling the strongest economic assets of each city in Guangdong, as well as those of the Hong Kong and Macao SARs, into a powerful collaborative effort.
Complemented by such mega cross-boundary infrastructure projects as the XRL, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which is due to open later this year, and the third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, which is slated to be completed by 2023, Hong Kong will be inextricably linked to the Bay Area to support the area’s development by optimizing the flow of talents, goods and information, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
Located in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, the Bay Area, with a vision to rival the New York, San Francisco and Tokyo bay areas, embraces a cluster of nine cities in Guangdong, plus Hong Kong and Macao.
The total GDP from the 11 cities in the Bay Area stood at 11.7 trillion yuan (US$1.71 trillion) last year, meaning that 5 percent of China’s population contributed more than 14 percent to the national GDP in 2017.
The Hong Kong section of XRL also connects the city with the country’s high-speed rail network of more than 25,000 kilometers — the world’s longest. Direct trains from the SAR will serve 44 destinations on the mainland, traveling at speeds of up to 310 kilometers per hour. A majority of the destinations are less than five hours away, including provincial capitals Wuhan, Changsha and Nanchang, and famous tourism spots like Xiamen, Guilin and Shantou.
Lam is confident the XRL will bring immense benefits to various sectors in Hong Kong, particularly businesspeople, who will be able to travel to the mainland much faster and more conveniently.
It will also offer young people easier access to the mainland in pursuing their careers and studies or living there, Lam stressed. For commuters, such a mode of travel on the high-speed rail will greatly improve their overall experiences.
The upcoming launch of the SAR’s first high-speed rail has generated considerable excitement in the city. When advance tickets went on sale on Sept 10, long queues had formed hours before the ticket office opened, jockeying for a taste of their first ride on a high-speed train. Tickets for the first train departing Hong Kong for Shenzhen North Station on Sept 23 were snapped up in four hours.
Not all about money
With the construction cost of the 26-km Hong Kong section of the XRL reaching a whopping HK$84.42 billion, or approximately HK$3.2 billion per kilometer, questions have been raised as to the profitability of the railway.
According to the city’s Transport and Housing Bureau, more than 90 percent of the direct economic benefits deriving from the Hong Kong section would come from cost savings resulting from shorter commuting times.
It’s estimated that after 50 years in operation, the Hong Kong section could save passengers about 39 million hours of travel time annually on average, saving about HK$88 billion.
It’s also projected that the operating margin of the Hong Kong section would reach 53.4 percent by 2031. The bureau said it’s optimistic that future operations can be sustained without any subsidy from the government.
“Since this particular line is built underground, its capital cost per kilometer is substantially higher than that of traditional high-speed rail lines. Accordingly, a high operating margin will be required to cover its capital cost,” said Gerald Ollivier, a Singapore-based transport cluster leader of the World Bank.
“Whether such an operating margin can be achieved would depend on the value of time, and the cost of alternative options,” he added.
Compared with other transportation modes, the direct benefits of a high-speed rail, which is powered by electricity, are usually associated with the impact of lower pollution and carbon emissions, Ollivier said.
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan stressed that the aim of the SAR government’s investment in the XRL is to facilitate travel between Hong Kong and the mainland, and promote regional economic growth, rather than simply focusing on profitability.
Agreeing with Chan, Ollivier said wider economic benefits are not regarded as direct benefits, “but are, nonetheless, very substantial in the case of high-speed rail”, noting that 1.7 billion passengers relied on high-speed train services in China last year.
“Since more than half of the travelers were on business trips, it meant wider economic benefits in the form of exchanges of ideas leading to innovation, new contracts and partnerships, as well as access to a broader pool of experts and services to better match business needs.
“Such wider economic benefits are all the more significant when two large economic areas are connected together, like in the case of Guangzhou and Shenzhen being linked to the Hong Kong SAR,” said Ollivier.
Carlos Casanova, an economist and strategist on China and other Asian countries at Coface — a global credit insurance and risk assessments company — reckoned that the XRL is more about long-term economic transformation within the Bay Area.
He said the project will significantly boost exchanges among people in the manufacturing sector in cities like Dongguan, Foshan and Huizhou, the technology sector in Shenzhen and the financial services industry in Hong Kong.
This will facilitate the production of more high-end products in the region, and contribute to the country’s economic transformation, which will “ultimately help China overcome the middle-income trap”, Casanova said.
Eddy Li Sau-hung, president of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Association, held similar views, saying the high-speed rail link will help Hong Kong businessmen with factories in the Bay Area to extend their operating radius to neighboring regions, such as Hunan province and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, which are within a four-hour ride on the XRL.
Li, who’s also managing director of Hong Kong watch manufacturer Campell Group, said considering that manpower and rental costs in Guangdong have been on the rise, more profit can be made by shifting some operations to adjacent provinces.
The high-speed rail’s advantage of being more punctual than airplanes will ensure a return trip can be made in a day, he added. Another plus is that train stations are normally located in city centers compared with airports, most of which are usually far from the urban areas.
Boost to tourism
The sprawling West Kowloon Station — one of the world’s largest underground high-speed rail stations covering more than 400,000 square meters — is located in one of Hong Kong’s busiest commercial centers, with two subway stations nearby, including that of the Airport Express which can take passengers directly to Hong Kong International Airport in less than half an hour.
As transport infrastructure projects reduce distances between cities in the Bay Area, travel agencies in Hong Kong have worked out their own strategies.
Timothy Chui Ting-pong, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Association, said some local travel companies plan to introduce Bay Area packages for Hong Kong travelers, who would take the high-speed rail to cities in the Bay Area and make the return trip on coaches using the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.
“More tourism infrastructures will diversify people’s options, and the time saved for travelers will give them a better experience,” Chui said, adding that the city’s tourism industry is “optimistic” after both the XRL and the mega bridge enter into service.
Diverse transport options, he said, would trigger benign competition among operators of cross-boundary coaches, ferries and flights, leading to fare cuts which, ultimately, would ensure lower operational costs for travel agencies.
Chui said the rapid expansion and modernization of the region’s transportation network would be a boon for the tourism business, with an anticipated surge in the number of visitors to Hong Kong from the Bay Area.
Latest statistics from the Hong Kong Tourism Board show that, as of June this year, year-on-year visitor arrivals in the city had surpassed 4.74 million — up nearly 13 percent compared with a year ago — with more than 3.63 million of them coming from the mainland, accounting for about 77 percent of the total number of visitors to the SAR.