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All the way down the line

Hong Kong's MTR Corporation is knuckling down to its latest metro construction project, the Tseung Kwan O line. The project involves an experiment in partnering, extensive advance design work, and tight site working restrictions. Report and photographs by

You can trace the route of Hong Kong's newest metro line by following the swathes of piling rigs and excavating plant through the high rise suburbs east of mainland Kowloon. The whole length of the new line is alive with construction activity, with work in full swing on all 13 civil engineering contracts.

When complete, the 12.5km Tseung Kwan O extension will serve a series of new urban development areas centred on the new town of Tseung Kwan O. The line will branch off existing track which runs through the cut and cover eastern approach to Hong Kong's Eastern Harbour Crossing.

From there trains will run on new track, passing through four stations before reaching the terminus at Po Lam. A branch line east of Tseung Kwan O will also take trains to a new depot and a future station on a reclaimed site known as Area 86.

By the time the HK$24bn (£2bn) line opens the population of this newly developing area is expected to be around 250,000. It is planned to increase to around 520,000 in the next 10 to 15 years.

The project involves a vast amount of piling to support around 60 housing development blocks up to 60 storeys high above and around the route. The depot site alone includes over 800 large diameter piles between 70m and 120m deep. Later this year an estimated 9,000 people will be working on the project.

The Tseung Kwan O line is Hong Kong metro operator MTRC's latest major civils project, following hard on the heels of the much bigger, high prestige £3bn Airport Express railway, completed in 1998.

MTRC project director Russell Black has had to bring the core team which worked on Airport Express back down to earth for this job. 'One of the challenges I see in going to the Tseung Kwan O line is that it is going back to constructing a conventional high capacity mass transit underground extension,' he says. 'The challenge is to move the team's focus to something that is in a way more mundane.'

For him, successful delivery of Tseung Kwan O is all about slick project management. Black also believes the new extension should benefit from the fact that it follows so close behind Airport Express, enabling MTRC to hold onto key project personnel.

He points out that MTRC built and then extended its first three lines almost back to back during the 1970s and 1980s. Once these were up and running there was a 10 year gap before the Airport Express got started. During that time MRTC's project team disbanded and the Corporation effectively lost a generation of project expertise.

After Airport Express, Black's team concluded it was vital to nail down the scope of the project as early as possible. The idea was to cut out changes to the project during the design and construction phases, reducing the risk of consequent cost overruns and claims. Airport Express was only 30% designed by the time it went out to tender, which undoubtedly exacerbated the project management challenges.

Early definition of the project was intended to help everyone involved in design and construction get to grips with the scope of work as soon as they started.

This meant getting MTRC's railway operations arm to define and stick to the Tseung Kwan O line's operating requirements several years ahead of the planned opening date. Before design work went out to tender, MTRC had decided on key operating parameters like train capacities and frequencies, station sizes, passenger flows and amounts of retail space to be incorporated in stations.

'This meant that once the consultants started work they did not need to consult the client as much,' says MTRC's chief design manager Malcolm Gibson. Consultants were also invited to work in MTRC's offices so meetings could be set up swiftly and time wasted on travelling from one office to another eliminated.

This approach enabled MTRC's consultants to get around 75% of the project designed before contractors were invited to bid. By contract award, designs were 90% to 95% complete. Having most of the design complete before construction contracts are awarded 'makes downstream management that much easier,' says Gibson, who sees the danger of cost escalations and delays caused by design changes after construction has begun.

By the construction phase, MTRC had also begun a full blown experiment in partnering with its contractors for the first time. There was a feeling at MTRC that some of the Airport Express work had suffered from contractor/client confrontation, possibly because the sheer scale and intensity of the construction programme left little time to tackle disagreements.

MTRC was well aware that its Tseung Kwan O contractors are all working on very tight margins. Their bids had come in soon after the Asian currency crisis wiped out a large chunk of the region's construction workload. Project managers like Section 3 supremo Roger Bayliss felt that if MTRC could work with contractors to eliminate waste and drive down costs, they would have more chance of making a profit and that a less confrontational atmosphere would prevail.

Black agrees. 'Some of the contractors are on very tight prices because the market is so competitive. The contractors and our staff are having to work together constructively otherwise the contractors won't have a chance.'

MTRC has yet to sign formal agreements to share savings and cost overruns with contractors, but it is moving that way on Tseung Kwan O. In one instance, depot piling contractor Gammon hit a fault line which failed to appear on MTRC's site investigation. As a result the contractor, which is shouldering unforeseen ground risk, had to sink 10 piles to depths of 120m or more before finding competent rock, where it had been anticipating work to depths of around 70m. After discussing the issue MTRC took a commercial decision to share some of the extra cost in acknowledgement of the scale of extra quantities needed and the fact that specially made telescopic piles had to be used. The whole issue was resolved verbally with a single exchange of letters.

The partnering approach has also carried through into the project's dealings with local communities overlooking the route. Project teams on the cut and cover and at grade sections have had to deal with tough environmental restrictions on dust and noise plus often vociferous complaints from residents living within a few metres of construction work.

Housing is so close to some sites that work is restricted to between 7am and 7pm six days a week, with site closures on Sundays and public holidays.

These restrictions limit scope for making up lost time, although the programme is a slightly more generous 48 months, compared with 43 months for the bigger Airport Express where sites were further away from built up areas.

So far the effort is paying off. By the turn of the year most of the civils contracts were running ahead of programme. Others were only a matter of days behind.

Why read this

Partnering is helping contractorson tight margins

Advance design has cut downthe scope for on site conflict

Construction is under way within a few metres of high risehousing developments

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