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Call to the masses Hong Kong's new Mass Transit Railway extension from downtown to Lantau island and Chek Lap Kok airport opens to commuters next week.

When Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok airport opens next month, passengers will be able to zip from the arrivals hall to the city centre in just 23 minutes on the Mass Transit Railway's newest line.

The new HK$35.1M (£2.8bn) MTR extension comprises two services - the Airport Express, which opens with the new airport, and the parallel Tung Chung commuter line which opens on Monday. Airport Express trains will only stop at three of the seven stations before the airport.

The new extension runs from Hong Kong to a terminus at Chek Lap Kok, crossing the Rambler channel by bridge to Tsing Yi island. From there, trains will speed over the Tsing Ma suspension bridge and the smaller, cable stay Kap Shui Mun bridge on to Lantau Island before crossing the channel to Chek Lap Kok.

Building the new extension was a major task and involved contractors and consultants from around the world. Work began in November 1994 and has run right up to this week - the date set for the opening of the commuter service. Construction has involved huge resources. At

peak 12,000 people were working on the project, which included 15 civils packages and 16 mechanical and electrical contracts.

Civils work along the line included land reclamation, a double immersed tube tunnel across Hong Kong harbour and complex underground work beneath high rise buildings. Piling broke world records and there was the engineering challenge of designing the Tsing Ma suspension bridge for rail as well as road traffic.

Station construction was also a major operation. Among the biggest were Hong Kong, Kowloon and Tsing Yee stations. Airport Expresses and commuter trains both stop at Hong Kong and Kowloon - huge multi-level complexes with Airport Express platforms on the upper levels and the Tung Chung line stations below.

Air rights developments have sprouted above stations. These are vital to the funding of the MTR as developers are contributing to the cost.

At Kowloon station there is a thicket of high rises for hotels, offices and residential accommodation with a total of 13ha of floor space resting on more than 1,000 piles as deep as 106m. At Hong Kong a 420m high, 88 storey steel framed office development is under construction.

Not surprisingly, the project ran into resourcing problems.

MTR work coincided with a mass of other major construction projects which were launched in the build up to the handover of Hong Kong to China last year. Construction workers in particular were in short supply, as were piling rigs. This resulted in delays to the civil works, forcing the MTR to squeeze timetables for the following M&E packages to keep the project on track.

Resource shortages also put pressure on the contractor's costs - a factor which appears to have been reflected in the larger than expected number of claims.

Despite the problems and the huge logistics involved in land reclamation, station construction and bridge and tunnel work, the project has stuck to programme. By May this year construction was shaping up to finish on time, leaving MTR to worry about ironing out bugs in the signalling software.

When it opens in July the Airport Express will operate for 19 hours in 24. Trains will be capable of running at up to 135km/h - fast for an urban rail scheme - running at headways of eight minutes carrying more than 36,000 passengers daily.

The commuter service is expected to handle around 40,000 passengers per hour at peak.

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