Just over four years ago the Hong Kong government issued Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation with a challenge. It set a seven year deadline to build the 30.5km West Rail commuter railway almost from scratch.
The task was immense. KCRC runs the 34km East Rail link between Kowloon and the mainland border, inherited from the Chinese who built it in 1910. It had never actually built a major railway line, having confined its construction experience to upgrading East Rail and building a new light rail scheme in the western New Territories.
West Rail will serve several fast growing new towns currently isolated from Hong Kong's urban mass transit and commuter railways. When complete in 2003 it will initially carry 20 trains per hour each way on the 30 minute journey between Nam Cheong in downtown Kowloon and Tuen Mun, via seven intermediate stations. Some 340,000 people a day are initially expected to use the service when it starts, rising to 500,000 by 2011.
Despite the daunting task and tight programme, West Rail has progressed rapidly. Late in 2000 parts of the line had already been handed over to track laying contractors and the station at Kam Sheung Road was moving into the fit out phase.
Keeping the project going under such a tight programme has been a result of a decision by KCRC's new chairman KY Yeung to blend external consultants with an in-house project team of experienced railway engineers and project staff forming the West Rail division.
Early in 1997 KCRC recruited the former Hong Kong government's policy secretary for works James Blake as senior director, capital projects. Bringing with him the experience of co-ordinating the implementation of Hong Kong's airport and the related programme of roads, bridges and railway, Blake now heads KCRC's planning and works groups, embracing West Rail, East Rail extensions and other new railway projects.
'KCRC had no track record of major projects and was seen very much as an untried entity, ' says Blake. He stresses the importance the Corporation put on developing a strong project team comprising individuals with long experience of rail projects in Hong Kong. Advantage was taken of KCRC's operating experience, underpinned by the recruitment of a railway design team led by Paul Anderson, the current general manager, railway systems, and Sid Patel, a signalling expert.
Before the West Rail team came together, Bechtel had around 250 engineers encamped in KCRC's offices and by early 1998 they had completed the all important route alignments and land acquisitions. Detailed design and early procurement strategies were also being formulated. Bechtel had wanted to split the project into five major schemes, but increased this to 17, with greater corresponding involvement of KCRC's construction management team.
The lesser value contract packages increased competition for the work and provided opportunities for local contractors.
In 1998 Ian Thoms came in fresh from MTR Corporation's airport railway project to take over as director West Rail and Jaya Jesudason arrived from the airport project as construction supremo. Alan Donnet followed in their footsteps to take charge of cost control and administration, completing the divisional headquarters team.
Designers struggled to keep preliminary estimates within agreed cost ceilings and a review of proposals for the signalling system gave the first clue about how these costs could be brought back under control. Anderson and his experts showed that available reliable systems would carry 100,000 passengers per hour along the route using maximum train lengths of nine instead of 12 car trains.
'We had three of the world's best signalling companies all saying we would be able to run trains at a 105 second frequency, ' says Thoms. The computer simulation paid for by KCRC bore this out. 'This gave us the confidence that we could run between 33 and 34 trains per hour.'
The news sparked a major value engineering exercise. For a start, platform lengths could be reduced, allowing stations to be shifted slightly to no longer be located on curves. Foundation requirements were reviewed, allowing KCRC to cut the piles needed along the route from around 8,000 to just under 5,000.
KCRC also initiated a HK$994M testing programme to help contractors find ways of complying with Hong Kong's often unforgiving building regulations without excessively deep piles.
The value engineering exercise was a success. KCRC now expects to complete West Rail with a budget of around HK$463M instead of the HK$644M preliminary budget adopted in 1996.
Having got costs under control, Thoms and his team are determined to keep a firm grip on them. KCRC is attempting an open, non-confrontational approach on contractors' problems and resolving claims.
Contractors are encouraged to bring issues affecting cost and programme to KCRC's senior management as soon as they arise, along with recommendations for settlement.
'We work with the contractor to look forward to key dates and identify what it needs to do to recover, ' says Blake. 'The situation is clear. Dates are protected by liquidated damages but the contractor is paid for resolving problems he has anticipated.'
KCRC also holds three-daylong quarterly review meetings which bring together project wide senior managers from all its contractors and suppliers.
Normally between 150 and 160 top executives attend.
KCRC's senior project managers also monitor problems as they arise and send out best practice notes across the project if a particularly useful solution is found. 'Our proactive approach has undoubtably unlocked a number of problem areas, ' says Blake. 'There is also an impetus to resolve contractual and commercial issues.'
Managing the point at which one contract starts and another ends is vital to efforts to keep the project to time and budget. Poor interface management between civils contracts and follow on electrical, mechanical and signalling work has been blamed for delays to London Underground's Jubilee Line Extension.
Thoms points out that KCRC is determined not to allow this to affect West Rail.
Its solution has been to develop an interface management strategy for the entire project, so that right from the beginning the programme takes into account timetables for construction, equipment installation, rolling stock delivery, integrated testing and system commissioning.
Drawing on the experience of previous projects like the UK's Channel Tunnel, KCRC spent three months defining all the interfaces between contracts for all disciplines across West Rail in late 1997/early 1998. 'It was necessary to work out where to put the boundaries in the contracts, ' says Paul Anderson, KCRC West Rail's general manager, railway systems.
'We have manufacturers supplying equipment from 15 countries. Managing them through the design process and having structures ready to accept their equipment is a mammoth task and needs a very strong and well organised team.'
KCRC set out ways in which it expected contractors to work together to ensure the smooth transition from, say, civils to electrical and mechanical work.
'If we do not define this, it is likely that rooms may not be to the sizes and finishes required and stations may not have appropriate structural provisions for systems like platform screen doors, ' says Anderson.
He aims to save the project money by cutting out unnecessary and costly variations - like breaking out concrete to accommodate a cable duct - through tighter management of contract interfaces. To do this KCRC actively participates in meetings between interfacing contractors, acting as a medium through which they can work out potential problems.
KCRC also has a computerised interface analysis system to assess the implications of changes. 'If there are changes we do an impact analysis to see if they affect other contracts. If another contract is affected as a result, we will recognise that up front, ' says Anderson. 'It could result in a variation, but we could avoid time claims and costs of late design changes.'
Ultimately Anderson is trying to protect the 12 months earmarked for commissioning before West Rail opens to the public.
'Without proper testing and commissioning large infrastructure projects typically suffer from unreliability in their first six to 12 months' revenue service, ' he says.