Off The Rails

The appointment of Mr Justice Hartmann to head the Independent Expert Panel reviewing the delay in the Express Rail Link project raises its status a peg or two.

I mean no disrespect to the local engineer whose appointment lasted all of two hours once it was discovered he could have a conflict of interest.

But putting one of our top judges on the job – a non permanent member of the Court of Final Appeal no less – means we can expect a meticulous examination of all the relevant issues and a final report which clearly sets out the findings. The expert knowledge of the other two members will be blended with a good helping of common sense and a sense of justice. Mr Hartmann to my personal knowledge brooks no nonsense so no one will be spared.

It also raises the possibility that the panel will go back to the drawing board and examine some pretty fundamental decisions about the project at the outset. They after all sowed the seeds of the situation we now find ourselves in.

I can think of three (there may be more): first, the decision to site the terminus in West Kowloon; second, the decision to set a 2015 target date for completion; third, the decision not to close a major road in the urban area to allow a thorough site investigation. To a degree, as I will try to explain, these decisions are in conflict with each other.

Construction of the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link – to give the project its full name – is part of the national network connecting all major cities in the country by high speed trains.

In every other city in China the new dedicated station has been built outside the city, partly on cost grounds – land on the fringes is cheaper than in the city centre – and partly to avoid disruption to the existing heavily trafficked urban area. There are obvious advantages in terms of ease and speed of construction too.

In Hong Kong we too could have pursued a similar option by putting the terminus on a brown field site in the New Territories and connecting it to the established urban areas with good highways. Bearing in mind that more than half of our population now lives in the NT, that would have been reasonable. Kowloon residents would have to travel a bit further of course but there are fewer of them. It makes no real difference to Hong Kong islanders. Such an option was indeed considered.

But a conscious decision was made to bring the railway right into the heart of the city to a new terminus in West Kowloon. That decision carried with it a number of critical consequences. It meant the railway line would have to be much longer. It would be much more challenging in engineering terms. It would take longer to build. It would be hugely more expensive. And there would be serious disruption to life in some parts of the existing urban area where works had to be carried out.

Our government can be a bit gung ho about the cost of capital works projects. As others have pointed out, our policy to put all land revenues into a separate dedicated Capital Works Reserve Fund means there is always plenty of cash available for the latest boondoggle.

There is a strong suspicion about who really set the completion date too. Did the engineers say ‘it will only take us this long’ or did the politicians say ‘we’ve fallen behind other Chinese cities and it must be finished quickly. You must aim for 2015’? I have my doubts. Strike two, as the Americans say.

Then there is the matter of site investigation. Any reputable engineer worth his salt will tell you that for a project of that magnitude and with that aggressive a programme there must be a thorough investigation of the entire site. "It would be criminal not to" one engineer friend tells me.

But to do the job properly would have required closing the golf driving range and at least one major road in the area. Someone, somewhere decided those things would not be done. Hence when the work started and hard rock was found where it had been assumed there was soft earth, the programme went to hell.

It is too late to change the location of the terminus now, of course. We have to live with the earlier decisions and hope the MTRC can finish the project as soon as possible.

But we look to the expert panel to tell us the whole story about how we got in this mess, not just the convenient version putting all the blame on the engineers and letting the politicos off the hook.