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How the West was won

West Rail Looking forward

KCRC has cut its teeth as a modern construction client on West Rail.

Senior director James Blake tells how the project has equipped it for future work.

Blood, sweat and tears may be a cliché, but there can be few doubts that the logistical, social, financial and engineering challenges encountered since the West Rail project got under way six years ago have been testing.

KCRC is anxious not to lose the valuable lessons learned along the way.

'When the Corporation got into West Rail we had no real experience of this kind of project. We were at the time a fairly conventional railway operator, ' says KCRC senior director James Blake. 'In the course of realising this project we have looked at all aspects of railway technology - we've learned a great deal, and we're now moving far more towards a mass transit approach.

'In the course of bringing the project to fruition we have gathered a team of Hong Kong's most experienced people, ' Blake adds, referring to the engineers, project managers, rolling stock, signalling and power specialists, station operators and managers, land acquisition and environmental experts who have seen the project through from groundbreaking ceremony to official opening. 'Looking to the future we want to retain as much of that teamwork and trust as possible.'

But that is not easy, Blake concedes. 'It all depends on timing. Without new projects there will be leakage of talent - unfortunately we can't provide a seamless transition from West Rail to another major new project. However, I do think we can retain at least the core of the organisation and build up from that.'

There are projects under way - three East Rail extensions are being built: the Ma On Shan Rail and Tsim Sha Tsui Extensions. These are due for completion next year, and the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line is due in 2007.

And there are more in the pipeline, says Blake: 'We were identified in the government's transport strategy as the developer for the Kowloon Southern Link.' This will extend down from West Rail's Nam Cheong Station to Tsim Sha Tsui East, where passengers will be able to change onto East Rail trains courtesy of the Tsim Sha Tsui Extension from Hung Hom.

'Work on the Kowloon Southern Link's started. We've completed scheme design and the next stage is to advertise design contracts in the official gazette. We will be seeking government approval this year for construction.'

Blake says that West Rail expertise will also be deployed on the Shatin Central Link, which will cross the harbour connecting the north-east New Territories with the central business district. It is marked for completion somewhere between 2008 and 2011.

'We won the project last year in competition with MTR [the mass rapid transport operator]. We were able to secure it because it fits neatly into the East Rail Extension. It will allow continuous rail travel from the east, through south east Kowloon and across the harbour.

'Those two projects were expected to lead our project group through the next seven years and we had expected to switch to them simultaneously, ' says Blake. 'Unfortunately the transition has not been as smooth as we hoped, because the government has asked us to look at some fundamental criteria resulting from recent economic changes in Hong Kong.

'Expansion of the rail network is fundamental among Hong Kong's needs, and we have confidence in attracting funding, ' Blake reassures. 'But in finalising our alignment it's important to make sure that we are not closing doors to future railway development plans. We must recognise that demographic forces and changes in the distribution of employment now under way are shaping what we build.'

In the longer term KCRC is hoping to build a line from Kam Sheung Road on West Rail to Lok Ma Chau, where it would intersect with the northern-most of the East Rail extensions, where construction is starting.

This would create a large 'loop' around the New Territories.

Another planned line should cut north-south between East and West Rail, crossing East Rail just east of Sheung Shui Station.

KCRC is looking forward to 2035 with the aim of ensuring that lines and stations built in the next few years meet the needs of the next generation.

'Hong Kong's total rail network is becoming more integrated, ' Blake explains. He can see barriers between MTR and the KCR blurring in future. 'It is becoming easier for passengers to move from one section of line to another, and between one system and another. As that happens railway passengers gain more choice. It's not appropriate any more to design a rail line simply to get people from one end to the other.

Travellers want to make complicated journeys involving several changes between lines or modes of transport.'

Blake says that KCRC's long operating history and positive cashflow has put it in a strong position to finance its future projects. And the banks' confidence in the corporation's ability to deliver complex construction to time and budget has been massively buoyed by its success on West Rail.

'There were questions in 1996-97 over our ability to deliver a major project of this nature. We've proved beyond doubt that we are able to deliver within budget and West Rail is within our target programme.

Lending agencies as a result have much more confidence in us.

'We don't need equity support from government. When we went to the government with our bid for the Shatin Central Link we told it that the corporation had the ability to fund projects on its own. Shatin and the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line will both be funded by the Corporation alone. Nor do we need to raise cash through property development.' This, says Blake, secures its projects against possible future economic slumps to which property values and revenue from development would be vulnerable.

Blake has spent his career as an engineer in Hong Kong, working much of the time as a contractor. Many of the projects on which he has been involved, including the Eastern Harbour Crossing and the original mass transit rail system, have been design and build. Following the success of design and build on West Rail, he is adamant that this is the course future KCRC projects will follow.

'I'm a great believer in giving the contractor the ability to lead the design and construction process, he says.

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