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Building on Hong Kong expertise

MTR Corporation has increasingly global ambitions as a train operator having established itself as Hong Kong’s metro and commuter rail operator over the last 40 years. It operates a highly efficient and constantly expanding metro system, with 10 lines now in operation. MTR also built Hong Kong’s high speed Airport Express link, a service it now operates.

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Uk presence: MTR holds the London Overground train operating concession

It is bringing the full range of this experience into play in support of a strategy to increase expansion into overseas markets under chief executive Jay Walder, a former Transport for London managing director, finance and planning.

MTR holds the London Overground train operating franchise which includes the North London Line, the East London Line and the Watford to Euston line

In 2009, MTR won the eight year concession to run the Stockholm metro, a large system in the Swedish capital carrying 1M passengers per day, with an option for a six year extension. In the UK its LOROL joint venture with DB Schenker holds the London Overground train operating concession, which includes the North London line between Richmond and Stratford and the East London Line between Highbury & Islington and South London, the Watford to Euston line and West London line between Clapham Junction and Willesden.

But its ambitions do not end there and the company is now a shortlisted bidder for the merged Thameslink and Southern franchise, the biggest to be let by the Department for Transport, plus the franchise for the Essex Thameside line from London Fenchurch Street to Southend. At the time of going to press, the competitions were on hold pending a government review of the system, but are expected to restart early in the year.

The Thameslink franchise will incorporate all commuter services running out of Victoria station plus the Thameslink service which runs from Bedford through central London to London Bridge and on to Brighton.

“We have driven up punctuality in the UK by working very closely with Network Rail’s operations teams”

Jeremy Long, CEO European Business, MTR

Taking on the new franchise will be a major challenge for whoever wins it, not least because it will involve running a commuter rail service while Network Rail is carrying out a major track and station upgrade programme.

Among the challenges presented by the franchise will be the diversion of services away from London Bridge station - a key Thameslink interchange - for long periods while it is rebuilt. After that, the franchisee will have to build up services through the remodeled station.

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Major project: Arial view of the vast high speed terminus site in central Kowloon

At the same time, operations at Farringdon station will have to adapt to its transformation into a major Crossrail interchange, when Crossrail opens in 2018.

But running highly efficient commuter services during such major upgrades and expansions is nothing new to MTR. This special report highlights work it is doing in Hong Kong to building five major projects, two of which are equivalent in size and complexity to Crossrail and four of which interface directly with live stations and track.

The five projects are:

  • The 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 through eastern Kowloon and under Hong Kong harbour 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.

All five projects are underway. Three of the four metro lines involve extending existing lines, dovetailing new track with existing rail, while keeping trains running and creating major new interchanges. One of the most complex interchanges is at Admiralty Station an interchange between two lines is to become Hong Kong’s first four line interchange with new platforms being constructed beneath a live station.

“We are working in and around the station there and can’t afford to disrupt the service,” says MTR projects director TC Chew.

All of the Hong Kong projects are in densely built up urban areas, often with buildings owned by influential people and companies overlooking often cramped sites, or sitting above drill and blast tunnel excavations. So stakeholder management is a vital part of the construction programmes and a good understanding of the issues faced by project teams and train operations teams is vital.

“Stakeholder engagement is one of the biggest challenges. You have to do it in almost every infrastructure project you do,” says Chew.

His Hong Kong team employs an army 110 of project liaison engineers and corporate relations managers to work with those affected by the projects, explaining construction methods at meetings with stakeholders and resolving disputes about access. “I will increase these numbers. I would rather do this than lose a day of programme due to lack of communication,” says Chew.

MTR has used its major projects expertise to support its work in the UK. It drafted in senior engineers to advise on the final stages of TFL’s East London Line upgrade project, before it started running trains on it as part of the London Overground concession. “We came in, in the last two years of the project to advise and assist and provide project delivery advice and expertise,” says MTR chief executive officer, European Business Jeremy Long.

MTR has also developed a partnership ethic with Network Rail and Transport for London, as it has worked on a concession commitment to improve train reliability and punctuality on the London Overground network.

“We have driven up punctuality by working very closely with Network Rail - in a way there has been a de facto alliance,” says Long. This has involved developing a close understanding of the challenges faced by Network Rail’s operations teams. “We have had to understand seasonal issues, the regulation of trains and other operators using the railway,” says Long. “The North London Line section of the London Overground network carries a lot of freight and trains which run at different speeds, so fitting them into an improved timetable was a challenge.” All this was achieved during a time when Network Rail was completing a major upgrade of the North London Line.

There are parallels with operations in Hong Kong.

On the West Island Line and Kwun Tong Line, tunnelling is underway behind bulkheads connecting tunnel construction sites to live running tunnels. Construction teams and operators have to work together, especially where bulkheads have to be opened up to allow for construction deliveries or emergency access.

On the West Island Line for instance, some deliveries are being made through the bulkhead from works trains at night, and these have to be coordinated with other work, like overnight maintenance.

In London, the partnership approach has helped improve services to the point where 98% of all London Overground trains arrived on time during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, despite a record number of passengers using services. This included 657,000 passengers over the weekend of the 4 and 5 August - a 24% increase on the busiest non-Olympic weekend.

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