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Making a mega metro

Hong Kong subway operator MTR is adapting the management structure of its major project division as it gets to grips with the challenge of building five major projects over the next few years. Andrew Bolton reports.

Imagine building Crossrail and the London tunnels section of High Speed 1 at the same time. Add to these three other complex metro extensions also worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

This is the challenge facing Hong Kong metro operator MTR over the next few years.

Over the last 12 months it has begun construction of the 26km, £5.47bn Hong Kong section of the high speed line running underground from West Kowloon to the border with mainland China.

Tunnelling is also underway on its 3km Island Line extension, known as the West Island Line, a £1.3bn project.

“We have to create an understanding that people do not take actions which could have a negative impact elsewhere”

TC Chew, MTR projects director


Another project, the 7km South Island Line(East) on Hong Kong Island is expected to get underway on site later this year, as is the 3km tunnelled Kwun Tong Line extension in Kowloon. Hard on the heels is the £5bn, 17km underground Shatin to Central Link, also expected to start in 2012, next year.

And the challenges are immense. MTR has not constructed projects on anything like this scale since the Airport Core programme of the mid-1990s when the express rail link to Hong Kong International airport was built. Now, with five either on site or in the advanced stages of planning and design, the heat is on.

Maintaining momentum

MTR projects director TC Chew is very conscious of the need to maintain momentum on all five projects and to coordinate resourcing, responses to technical challenges, plus budgeting and programming. This is why he last year recruited tunnelling veteran Alan Myers to beef up his management team taking on the role of chief civil construction engineer.

Myers has vast experience of major civils projects. He worked on the MTR metro construction programme between 1977 and 1984 and has also worked as a contractor for Balfour Beatty as a senior manager on projects like the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow Express. Myers also worked for Rail Link Engineering on the Medway tunnel and viaduct section of High Speed 1 section one and as Manager of Tunnelling on section 2, and has worked in consulting, most recently as director of major projects at Halcrow.

Myers joined MTR from Halcrow last May and it is his job to take an independent view on the issues facing each project and to coordinate the efforts of the managers in charge of the individual projects to produce the most efficient overall outcome for MTR.

He reports to Chew and is responsible for providing senior management with an independent view and assessment on each of the projects.

“My role is not a normal one, so I had to work very hard at this and there has been a lot of walking on eggshells”

Alan Myers, MTR chief construction engineer


The aim is to ensure that resolving individual project issues does not conflict with MTR overall efforts to get the five projects done on time and within budget. “We have to create an understanding across the projects, that we don’t take action which may impact elsewhere,” says Chew.

“I chose Alan because of his experience and his early Hong Kong experience,” says Chew. “I wanted someone who had done what he set out to do. It is also an opportunity for someone with experience to impart their knowledge,” he adds.

“There has been a gap of eight to 10 years without any really serious major infrastructure projects, so there is a knowledge gap,” he says.

Partnering experience

Chew was also keen to recruit someone with experience of partnering, something MTR has started to develop on smaller projects like its Tseung Kwan O line, built just over 10 years ago, and the more recent spur line to Hong Kong’s Disneyland site on Lantau Island.

Myers fitted the bill in this respect because he had used partnership approaches on the acclaimed Heathrow Express tunnel collapse recovery programme and on High Speed 1.

“My role is to coordinate with contractors and to resolve possible issues before they become issues,” says Myers.

Patnering is an ethos MTR began developing in the early part of the last decade, notably on the construction of the Tseung Kwan O line and on the spur line from the Tung Chung line on Lantau Island to the Disneyland resort.

Projects programme

MTR has embarked on an ambitious programme of five major rail projects which is due to be completed by the end of the decade.

The projects are:

  • West Island Line, the £1.3bn tunnelled extension to the existing Island Line on Hong Kong Island
  • The £5.47bn tunnelled connection to the Chinese high speed rail network including a major terminus in West Kowloon
  • The £5bn Shatin to Central Link between Shatin in the New Territories and Admiralty station on Hong Kong Island via an undersea tunnel.
  • The Kwun Tong line Extension from central Kowloon to Whampoa Gardens
  • South Island Line, which will be the first metro line connecting north and south Hong Kong Island, running from the interchange station at Admiralty. It is a mixture of tunnel and viaduct


Chew and Myers are now keen to further spread the partnering ethos across all five projects.

On West Island Line, two of the main tunnelling and stations contracts are being done on a target cost, pain share/gain share basis because the work is complex and requires some flexibility from client and contractor.

“We realise that target cost is helpful for very complex work and where there are degrees of uncertainty where it is not clear who best takes the risk,” says Chew.

On the West Island Line, contractors on neighbouring sections are working on a complex series of adits, access shafts and running tunnels beneath a congested, heavily built up high rise area of Hong Kong Island.

Sharing work

Contractors on the two adjoining contracts have encountered problems, but have been looking at sharing some of their drill and blast tunnelling work so that they can speed the work up and maintain the schedule.

Chew says target cost contracts will also be used at the existing Admiralty station on Hong Kong island where the Shatin to Central link terminus will interchange with the new South Island Line terminus. “It’s a complex modification to an existing station,” he says.

So far one of Myers’ biggest challenges has been to embed himself within the MTR setup and win the confidence of the project teams.

“My role is not a normal one within MTR, so I had to work very hard at this and there has been a lot of walking on eggshells,” he adds.

His approach is methodical and disciplined. “I have to take an hour to stop myself and think of each project at a time. I then have to go through each project and each issue,” he says.


The scale of the projects he is overseeing demands such rigour, as each requires a high degree
of focus.

“The high speed rail line has five or six major contracts and is like section two of High Speed 1 with around 26km of tunnels.

“Then the Shatin to Central Link is not far off Crossrail with its 10 stations, a harbour crossing and some very built up areas. Then we have the extensions with another 10 stations - each one is unique and has its own challenges,” he says. The challenge, says Chew, is to apply a consistent management approach across all of the projects.

“We have to create an understanding that people do not take actions which could have a negative impact elsewhere,” he says. Within MTR, Chew says the challenges facing his division run along six lines, or pillars as he describes them.

They are as follows:

  • stakeholder engagement - looking for ways of minimising the impact of the projects on daily life
  • development of collaborative working agreements
  • cost management
  • the need to innovate
  • Staff development - filling the skills gap caused by the hiatus in MTR’s project workload over the last 10 years.
  • Engaging and motivating staff

The push to get all of the projects onto site is now on. Kwun Tong Line Extension and South Island Line are out to tender. MTR is currently seeking extra cash for advance works so that they can include station boxes for the Shatin to Central Link, at interchange points. This could be as soon as May, paving the way for the start of construction this summer.

Work for the Shatin to Central Link is expected to start on site next year after an extended public consultation period.


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