11 years, still waiting: Hong Kong government needs to hurry up with studying Kai Tak rail link proposal, experts say

Cannix Yau

Transport experts want the Hong Kong government to make up its mind on a proposal for an elevated rail link across the heart of Kowloon through the mega Kai Tak Development area.

Pointing out the idea had been under consideration since 2009, they said the rising number of residents and employees in the area cannot wait indefinitely for the link to be built.

They suggested that the government took a more flexible approach and considered different modes of transport for different parts of the area, but emphasised the need to avoid further delays.

“It’s been 11 years since the government first studied this linkage system. After two public consultations, it has still failed to take this project forward,” said Morris Cheung Siu-wa, former president of the rail training centre, MTR Academy.

“A lot of people have been moving into the Kai Tak district, which needs an extensive transport system to boost its economy.”

The proposal is for an elevated 9km monorail running from Kowloon Bay MTR station to the massive Kai Tak Development, on the site of Hong Kong’s former international airport, continuing above the Kwun Tong typhoon shelter to the Kwun Tong subway station.

Cheung and other experts said they were taken aback when Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun cited “more-than-expected complicated challenges” as he told the Legislative Council in April that more time was needed to review the proposal and explore alternatives to an elevated link.

He said the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) had found that building either an elevated or underground transport link in Kowloon East would encounter “lots of technical complications and challenges”, especially in developed areas.

He said the department would finalise a detailed feasibility study within this year with a view to finding a practicable, cost-effective solution, and the government would work out the next steps in due course.

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Wong’s remarks raised concerns that the government was heading for a U-turn on building the elevated monorail system, and that would mean further delays.

“I wonder if the government is having second thoughts about the elevated monorail system by saying it will explore other options,” said Morris Cheung, who is also honorary president of the Association of Hong Kong Railway Transport Professionals.

Noting that the government began a detailed feasibility study in 2015, he added: “I am shocked to hear the government reveal at such a late stage that it has run into complicated technical challenges.”

Morris Cheung, honorary president of the Association of Hong Kong Railway Transport Professional. Photo: Nora Tam

The project aims to improve connectivity within Kowloon East and meet the needs of the Kai Tak Development, which spans more than 320 hectares comprising the former airport site as well as adjoining Kowloon City, Wong Tai Sin and Kwun Tong districts.

The Kai Tak area currently has 53,000 residents and a transient working population of 25,600. The population is expected to rise to 134,000 residents and 119,000 employees by 2031.

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The government estimated in 2010 that the proposed rail link would cost HK$12 billion and have a daily ridership of 200,000 in 2031.

Henry Cheung Nin-sang, chairman of the transport professionals’ association, said he understood the difficulty of building an elevated monorail through crowded Kwun Tong.

“My assessment is that for the Kwun Tong district, any construction mode, elevated or underground, would be impossible as it is simply overcrowded,” he said.

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Morris Cheung suggested that the government avoid further delays by dividing the proposed system into two sections and building the Kai Tak-Kowloon Bay link first.

“If the monorail model is now only stuck at Kwun Tong but is feasible for Kai Tak to Kowloon Bay, why doesn’t the government initiate that section first? Then it can take time to further study how to extend the link to Kwun Tong,” he said.

Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, spokesman for the commuter concern group Public Transport Research Team, said the government could consider another option, such as a bus rapid transit system with dedicated bus lanes.

“The construction of this system is quicker and cheaper, as they won’t need to build railway tracks and signal systems,” he said.

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He agreed the decision-making process would be quickened if the government took a flexible approach, looking at different options for different districts. “It shouldn’t just stick to one model for all districts,” he said.

Cheung King-fan, Kowloon City’s district councillor, preferred the government to stick to the original proposal for a monorail system and move as soon as possible.

“Many Kai Tak residents and investors hope the government will implement the project quickly. Making fundamental changes to the plan will only lead to more delays,” he said.

The Kai Tak site, as pictured in September last year. Photo: Martin Chan

“There will be rising demand for transport in Kai Tak with more residential buildings getting completed. The Kai Tak Sports Park will also be completed in 2023.”

A spokeswoman for the Development Bureau said the challenges the CEDD encountered included working out how the linkage system could be efficiently built and operated, given the constraints of limited road space and an urban environment already overcrowded with people and vehicles.

“The long-term financial viability and cost-effectiveness of the linkage system are also key considerations,” she said, adding that the CEDD would continue to refer to and explore latest developments and other environmentally friendly transport technologies at home and abroad.

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