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Going the distance: Hong Kong's MTR projects

Building five major projects in 10 years is a major challenge for MTR’s newly appointed projects director TC Chew. Andy Bolton reports.

Hong Kong metro operator MTR’s projects director had an impressive in-tray when he started his job in early February.

Chew Tai Chong, or TC Chew as he is more often known, finds himself in charge an unprecedented expansion programme, which involves delivering five major projects including a 26km tunnelled high speed rail link between downtown Kowloon and mainland China.

Some of these projects are currently slated for completion by 2015, with a number either on site already or scheduled to start this year or next. They are:

  • Hong Kong section of the HK$66.9bn (£5.47bn) Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, a 26km underground high speed railway line between Kowloon and the border with mainland China
  • The 17km Shatin to Central Link, which will create another harbour crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island
  • The 3km extension of the existing Island Line on Hong Kong Island, known as the West Island Line, a project which is now on site
  • The 7km South Island Line (East), connecting Hong Kong island’s business and commercial district at Admiralty with the south coast
  • The 3km Kwun Tong Line Extension, a short but complex underground extension through densely populated Kowloon. “The key challenge for me is multiple project execution,” says Chew.

MTR’s biggest project to date was the Airport Express built in the mid 1990s to link Hong Kong’s airport at Chek Lap Kok with the city centre.

For Chew, the complexities have as much to do with the community relations aspect of construction as they do with their technical challenges. West Island Line is a case in point as its tunnels snake past the foundations of densely packed residential buildings at the western end of the island.

“The community wanted the railway, we have to overcome significant challenges to implement this extension,” says Chew. Often, parks and playgrounds have to be closed while station entrances and access shafts are built.

Hung Hom is a growing interchange

Hung Hom is a growing interchange

Although these will be returned to the community in the long term, valued amenities are being removed in the short term. “So, good community relations are vital to the success of projects. We are very sensitive to community needs,” says Chew.

But while aware of the intricate sensitivities of such projects, Chew says he will have to be careful not to get bogged down in day-to-day minutiae.

“With multiple projects I have to learn how to pick up only on the critical details,” he says.

Delegation is vital and Chew’s idea is to run his division like a large company with each project operating like a subsidiary. To this end, Chew has put a general manager in charge of each of the major projects, and given them day-to-day responsibility for delivery. “The general managers are fully experienced in project management - they can be project director.

“Good community relations are vital to the success of projects. We are very sensitive to community needs”

TC Chew, projects director, MTR Corp

“I am also going to appoint a chief construction engineer who will provide a general overview and an independent perspective,” he says. “There is also a head of project engineering who will take care of various engineering issues and any major technical ones.”

Chew will also draw on the technical expertise of what he terms a “council of elders” - experienced engineers and academics who will advise on complex engineering and construction issues.

Staffing up for such a major construction programme is one of the biggest immediate challenges facing Chew and his team. MTR is going from an organisation which hasn’t built a major project for at least five or six years to one which will need 2,000 in-house engineers and technical staff.

Staff issues

Attracting senior staff has not been so much of a problem, says Chew. MTR has been able to bring some key people back to Hong Kong from metro projects in other parts of the world. But the big problem will be recruiting recruiting more junior personnel.

“Finding younger enthusiastic engineers is a key challenge for us. It may be necessary for us to increase our expat population,” says Chew. “But we are competing with Crossrail, projects in Singapore and in the US.”

Chew is also mindful that his contractors may struggle to find the right calibre of experienced staff as the programme gathers pace. There will be a particular need to build up tunnelling expertise.

But he is optimistic, pointing out that some of the major tunnelling jobs in Europe and China are coming to an end.

There are nonetheless concerns about the local construction industry’s capacity to deliver MTR’s programme in such a tight timescale. The recent construction slump in Hong Kong has resulted in many foreign companies leaving the region and a downturn in the local construction workforce.

“The key challenge for me is multiple project execution”

TC Chew

In response, MTR has toured the world in an attempt to drum up interest, so far attracting the attention of Laing O’Rourke and Kier from the UK, Vinci of France and Japanese contractors like Obayashi.

In the meantime, Chew is having to get to grips with the demands imposed by new ways of funding MTR projects.

Traditionally, MTR has used the railway plus property business development model to fund the expansion of the metro system and some of the new projects like the South Island Line (East) will be built using this model. But there is also pressure to develop projects using public money as the Hong Kong government gives increasing weight to projects which have a wider significance to the city as a whole but which have less scope for property development.

These projects are being run as what are termed Government Owned and Funded Assets, where the government funds construction works and MTR acts as delivery partner, project managing construction and earning a fee for operating the completed infrastructure.

This model applies to the high speed rail link whose only station is the West Kowloon terminus and whose construction is seen as being vital to the importance of Hong Kong as a major regional city in southern China.

Chew’s challenges

TC Chew

Chew stepped into the role of projects director earlier this month, after joining MTR as Russell Black’s deputy last summer.

Black stepped down at the end of January having reached MTR’s retirement age handing over to Chew, who was recruited to be his replacement due to his wide-ranging experience working on major global metro projects.

An electrical engineer who studied at UMIST, he has developed enough all-round expertise to earn him fellowships of the ICE, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers and The Institution of Engineering and Technology

Back in 1990 he was in the UK working for London Underground in the pre-construction days of the Jubilee Line Extension (JLE).

In those days he was the project E&M manager. “I was one of the founder members of the project team with Black,” he recalls.

Chew eventually left the JLE project in 1995 when preliminary designs had been completed, taking up a post as senior director, projects and engineering at Singapore’s Land Transit Authority where he was in charge of implementing the country’s long-term rail master plan including the successful fully automated North East MTR Line.

He was also involved in a series of other light rail projects before leaving Singapore in 2003 when his family persuaded him to return to the UK.

There he became president of train manufacturer Bombardier’s London Underground projects division working on Metronet’s train renewal programme for London Underground before becoming head of mass transit responsible for the global delivery of turnkey rail system projects. From there he joined MTR.


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