You can trace the route of Hong Kong's newest metro line by following the swathes of piling rigs and excavating plant through the high rise suburbs east of mainland Kowloon. The whole length of the new line is alive with construction activity, with work in full swing on all 13 civil engineering contracts.
When complete, the 12.5km Tseung Kwan O extension will branch off existing track which runs through the cut and cover eastern approach to Hong Kong's Eastern Harbour Crossing. It will then swing around the foot of a steep hill in cut and cover tunnel to Yau Tong station.
Here, trains will stop at a double deck station interchange with the Kwun Tong line which is being extended from Lam Tin. Both lines then move into a four bore rock tunnel through the Black Hills before emerging at Tiu Keng Leng, another double deck station. Both stations are designed to accommodate interchange between the two lines.
At Tiu Keng Leng, the Kwan Tong line ends and the Tseung Kwan O extension continues in cut and cover tunnel via Tseung Kwan O and Hang Hau stations to the Po Lam terminus.
Just beyond Tseung Kwan O the line branches off into another rock tunnel which will take trains to the depot and a future station on a reclaimed site called Area 86.
By the time the line opens, the population of this newly developing area is expected to be around 340,000. The number is planned to increase to around 520,000 in the next 10 to 15 years.
The project also involves a vast amount of piling to support around 60 housing development blocks up to 60 storeys high above and around the route. The depot site alone includes over 800 large diameter piles between 70m and 120m deep. Later this year an estimated 9,000 people will be working on the project.
The Tseung Kwan O line is Hong Kong metro operator MTRC's latest major civils project, following the much bigger, high prestige HK$35.1bn Airport Express railway, completed in 1998.
MTRC project director Russell Black has had to bring the core team who worked on Airport Express back down to earth for Tseung Kwan O. 'One of the challenges I see in going to the Tseung Kwan O line is that it is going back to constructing a conventional high capacity mass transit underground extension, ' he says. 'The challenge is to move the team's focus to something that is in a way more mundane.'
His aim is to deliver the most cost effective railway possible, in line with the strict commercial philosophy under which MTRC operates. Unlike many public transport organisations it operates without government subsidy, deriving revenue from ticket sales, property developments around stations and advertising. For major projects, it draws financing requirements from the international markets.
'For us a rail project is a huge financial investment. We don't just look on it as public works engineering, we look on it as a commercial investment, so we have to finish on time and to budget, ' says Black.
For him, successful delivery of Tseung Kwan O is all about slick project management. Black also believes the new extension should benefit from following so close behind Airport Express, enabling MTRC to hold on to key project personnel. He points out that MTRC built and then extended its first three lines almost back to back during the 1970s and 1980s. Once these were running there was a 10 year gap before the Airport Express started. During that time, MRTC's project team disbanded and the Corporation effectively lost a generation of project expertise.
After Airport Express, Black's team concluded that it was vitally important to nail down the scope of the project as early as possible. The idea was to cut out changes during the design and construction phases, reducing the risk of consequent cost overruns and claims.
Airport Express was only 30% designed when it went out to tender and this undoubtedly made the project management challenges substantially more difficult.
Early project definition was intended to help everyone in design and construction get to grips with the scope of their work as soon as they started.
This meant getting MTRC's railway operations arm to define and stick to the Tseung Kwan O line's operating requirements even though this was several years ahead of the planned opening date. Before design work went out to tender, MTRC had decided on key operating parameters like train capacities and frequencies, station sizes and passenger flows.
'Once the consultants started work they did not need to consult the client as much, ' says MTRC's chief design manager Malcolm Gibson. Consultants were also invited to work in MTRC's offices. The move reflects Black's efforts to shorten lines of communication within the project, and to tackle problems early in a more informal, less confrontational way. Meetings could be set up swiftly and time saved on travelling from one office to another.
As a result MTRC's consultants completed around 75% of project design before contractors were invited to bid. By contract award, designs were between 90% and 95% complete.
Black has also imposed a flat management structure, putting a single project director in charge of the whole scheme and splitting responsibility for the line between three project managers.
Section 1 is the Yau Tong area, Section 2 runs between Tiu Keng Leng and Po Lam, and Section 3 is two bored tunnels and the depot.
Section heads have direct access to MTRC's project control group, chaired by Black. They must inform the Executive of real or potential issues affecting the construction programme or costs as soon as they arise. The hope is that they then can be dealt with before costs spiral or programme starts to slip.
By the construction phase, MTRC had also begun a full blown trial of partnering with its contractors (see page vi).
There was a feeling at MTRC that some Airport Express work had suffered from contractor client confrontation, possibly because the sheer scale and intensity of the construction programme meant there was little time to tackle disagreements.
At the same time MTRC was aware that its Tseung Kwan O contractors were working on very tight margins.
Their bids had come in soon after the Asian currency crisis wiped out a large chunk of the region's construction workload.
MTRC has yet to sign formal agreements to share savings and cost overruns with contractors, but is moving in that direction on Tseung Kwan O.
The partnering approach has also carried through into dealings with the local communities overlooking the route.
On some sites work is restricted to between 7am and 7pm six days a week, and closing on Sundays and public holidays. On others project contractors have agreed to delay the start of morning work, even though this has meant squeezing already tight construction programmes.
These restrictions leave limited scope for making up lost time, although the programme is a slightly more generous 48 months, against 43 months for the bigger Airport Express where sites were further away from built up areas.
So far the effort is paying off. By the turn of the year most of the civils contracts were running ahead of programme. Others were only a few days behind.