This is a momentous period for the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation. Until now it has been purely a transport operator,
running successful train, light rail and bus services in Hong Kong's New Territories.
But with more lines needing to be built, not only is KCRC taking on a new role as construction client, but it is starting the task by building the biggest single capital project ever undertaken in Hong Kong. At an estimated HK$64bn (£5.1bn), West Rail is larger even than the new Chek Lap Kok airport.
The line will be just 30km long, but little, if any, of its construction will be straightforward. Passing through mountains and built up areas, structures and tunnels account for over 90% of its length. The first two major contracts are now getting under way on site, and the remainder - worth some £3.2bn - will be awarded this year. Meanwhile, KCRC has also been given the go ahead for £2.4bn) of further expansions, reinforcing its new role.
Plans stem from a government request to KCRC to look at improvements in urban travel, together with freight, intercity, and shorter distance cross boundary travel, explains KCRC senior director capital projects James Blake.
Population growth in particular is the prime driver. In 1996, Hong Kong's population was 6.2M; this is forecast by government to rise to 8.1M by 2011. Extra housing will be concentrated in the newer urban areas, many of them now only accessible by bus, and more efficient transport will be needed. Additional impetus for West Rail in particular comes from the predicted growth within its catchment. Numbers are set to rise 70%, up from about 800,000 to 1.35M. Freight and cross boundary traffic are both also predicted to grow, and both East and West Rail plans are taking this into account (see boxes).
Rail services in Hong Kong are run by two corporations, each government owned. Mass Transit Railway Corporation's original lines are concentrated in the central metropolitan area, while some of its latest reach out to new towns and Chek Lap Kok airport. Main element of KCRC's operations is East Rail, a multimodal line. It carries urban trains out to the north eastern New Territories and a boundary crossing at Lo Wu, intercity services to mainland China, and freight.
'We are entering a major period of growth for the corporation,' says Blake. 'Changing from a railway operator to a corporation that is responsible for the biggest civil engineering projects in Hong Kong has not been an easy task,' he adds.
The approach has been to set up a capital projects group, a decision taken by the corporation's chairman and chief executive KY Yeung and formed in March 1997. It is led by Blake, and has three specific divisions: West Rail, the East Rail extensions, and the capital projects planning department which services all the planning needs of the corporation and acts as project manager for some smaller projects.
The first two contracts on West Rail were let in September and October last year, both of them design and build tunnel sections. To meet the target opening in December 2003, all other major contracts will be let this year.
Following on are three extensions to East Rail - a branch to the rapidly growing area of Ma On Shan, a new city centre terminus at Tsim Sha Tsui, and a second boundary crossing between Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
Light rail will be enhanced as part of the West Rail development.
A second phase was planned for West Rail, north to the boundary, and providing intercity, freight and cross boundary services, but costs and environmental considerations make this unlikely for a long time to come, says Blake. 'What is cost effective is to use East Rail for freight and secondly to link East Rail and West Rail together by way of a southern loop.'
Further ahead would be an East Rail extension south from Kowloon across the harbour to Hong Kong Island. What goes ahead will be determined by the government's second rail development strategy, and final reports are due mid year.