Occupy Central and the Hong Kong Tramways

From September to December 2014 protests occupied many streets across Hong Kong, in what was known as ‘Occupy Central’ or the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. As well as forcing road traffic to take alternate routes, the protests also disrupted tramway services on Hong Kong Island.

Protesters occupy Queensway in Admiralty, 28 September 2014

(the above photo by ‘Wing1990hk’ is from the Wikimedia Commons)

Tram tracks were blocked by protesters at two locations – Queensway in Admiralty and Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay. The Hong Kong Tramways issued their first service update on 30 September 2014:

Due to the closure of the tram track section between Western Market and Victoria Park (including the Happy Valley Loop), tram services are temporarily disrupted until further notice. Services between Kennedy Town and Western Market (Sheung Wan MTR) and between Shau Kei Wan and Victoria Park are maintained.

By October 10 the Hong Kong Tramways negotiated with the protestors for temporary access to the tram tracks at Admiralty, allowing eight tramcars to be transferred from the Whitty Street Depot to Happy Valley, allowing a limited service to be returned to the otherwise isolated tracks.

Due to the closure of the tram track section at Admiralty and Causeway Bay, tram services are temporarily disrupted until further notice. Services between Kennedy Town and Pedder Street (Central), between Shau Kei Wan and Victoria Park and services along the Happy Valley Loop are maintained. We apologize for the inconvenience caused and look forward to resuming normal services.

On October 15 the section of track through Admiralty was reopened to trams, and on October 22 a free-of-charge circular route was made available between Victoria Park and Paterson Street in Causeway Bay.

Turning back trams is not simple – Hong Kong’s tram fleet normally operate in a single direction, with reversing loops being used to keep the trams facing the right way at the end of each route.

Three Hong Kong trams await departure time from the Shau Kei Wan terminus

This video by ‘SE 692′ shows the special arrangements put in place at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, where trams from the east were forced to turn back to Shau Kei Wan.

It also shows some of the spotting features for trams the ‘wrong’ way around, such as:

  • The rooftop resistor grid at the front end,
  • Passenger seats all face the ‘front’ of the tram,
  • Driving controls are provided at each end of tram but only the ‘front’ set has a seat for the driver,
  • Doors are fitted on both sides, but only one set is normally used

The use of crossovers to change direction is not normal practice on the Hong Kong Tramways, which is also why the trolley pole has to be manually transferred to the opposite wire – the crossovers themselves are unwired, so there is no other way for the tram to collect power while switching tracks.

Beyond the increased travel times for tram passengers, operating the network in two parts also had implications on the fares charged – each journey is a flat fare, so the disruptions potentially doubled the cost to passengers. As a result free transfer arrangements were also put in place by the Hong Kong Tramways:

Hong Kong Tramways Provides Free Tram Transfers

In order to mitigate impacts of the prolonged blockage of the tram tracks in Causeway Bay on tram passengers, starting from 30 Oct 2014, daily from 6:30am to 11:30pm, Hong Kong Tramways offers single-trip interchange free tram ride coupons for the alighted passengers in need: –

  • at Foo Ming Street tram-stop (#105) , whereas the coupons (with ‘E’ and date chop) can only be used for the Victoria Park to Shau Kei Wan route (east bound);
  • at Victoria Park tram-stop (#42W), whereas the coupons (with ‘W’ and date chop) can only be used for the Happy Valley to Kennedy Town route (west bound).

Each passenger will only be given one coupon upon request, which is valid on the date and the dedicated route only. Passengers shall present the coupon to the driver and put it into the coin box when alighting. Free ride coupon distribution is subject to change without prior notice. Thank you for your attention.

By November 2014 the Hong Kong Tramways claimed that the two months of protests had resulted in 3.9 million fewer passengers using the trams, which cost the company HK$7.8 million in revenue. The South China Morning Post has more on the subject:

Tramways loses HK$7.8 million revenue after being stopped in its tracks
Emily Tsang
29 November 2014

Hong Kong Tramways has urged pro-democracy demonstrators to release its occupied track in Causeway Bay, saying it had lost 3.9 million passengers and HK$7.8 million in revenue during the Occupy Central movement.

But Tramways managing director Emmanuel Vivant ducked a question on whether the company would follow Mong Kok transport operators in seeking court injunctions to have the road cleared.

“We are exploring our best options,” he said. “At the moment, we are focused on addressing the situation and trying to deliver the best service.”

Vivant said five of the company’s six routes remained disrupted, with 50 trams on the eastern side unable to return to a main depot for maintenance.

“We have taken a proactive and sincere approach and tried to appeal to the protesters to lift the blockade,” he said. “But we could not reach a consensus with the Causeway Bay protesters despite repeated discussions.”

Tramways reached an agreement with Admiralty protesters to unblock the Queensway section, and services to Happy Valley resumed on October 14.

But it said the occupation of Yee Woo Street in Causeway Bay had left 50 vehicles unable to return to the main repair depot in Whitty Street, Western District.

Contingency measures introduced yesterday allow part of the maintenance work to be done at a secondary depot in Sai Wan Ho.

The measures include using crane-equipped trucks to transport tram bogies to the Whitty Street site for detailed maintenance before carrying them back to Sai Wan Ho for installation.

Senior engineering manager Steven Chan Shih-Yao said the company had prepared for the move for 10 days, and that the work cost about HK$200,000.

But four trams still stood idle as they were in need of major repairs that could be done only at the Whitty Street depot

Vivant said the company had lost up to 55,000 passengers a day since the Occupy movement started in late September.

Before its Admiralty section reopened, the company was losing 45 per cent of its passengers, but this had been trimmed to 25 per cent, he said.

“Hong Kong Tramways pledges that safety will not be compromised in its effort in maintaining the best possible services,” its statement said.

It took until 15 December 2014 for tram serves to return to normal, when police cleared the final protestors from Yee Wo Street between Percival Street and Causeway Road.


Some more footage of the altered workings at the Victoria Park crossover in Causeway Bay can be seen in this video by ‘mtrA381382′.

Given the length of the Hong Kong Tramways route, only eight crossovers exist on the network, as listed on the Chinese-language ‘HK Rail’ Wikia site:

  • Kennedy Town: at the Davis Street tram stop
  • Sai Ying Pun: between Western Street and Eastern Street tram stops
  • Central: between Pedder Street and Ice House Street tram stops
  • Admiralty: between Cotton Tree Road and Admiralty MTR tram stops
  • Wanchai: between Gresson Street and Luard Road tram stops
  • Victoria Park: Victoria Park tram stop, next to the westbound platform
  • North Point: near the Shu Kuk Street tram stop and the North Point Terminus
  • Quarry Bay: between Finney Street and Parker Road tram stop

All normal termini on the Hong Kong Tramway network are balloon loops or ‘around the block’ tracks – as seen in this track diagram from 1996.

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Railway depots and Hong Kong property development

With so little free space in Hong Kong, railway depots aren’t just open air railway tracks and workshop facilities, but spaces that combine commercial property developments with the services need to keep the trains running.

MTR train departs Kowloon Bay station: Kowloon Bay depot is located alongside, underneath the Telford Garden housing estate

The MTR Corporation was established in 1975 as a private company under explicit government control, with the government ordinance stating that the corporation was required to “conduct its business according to prudent commercial principles”. The result was integrated “rail and property” development model, which has funded the expansion of the MTR network ever since.

The first railway depot to be built on the MTR network was at Kowloon Bay. Located in western Kowloon in the shadows of Kai Tak Airport, the depot is situated at ground level, with a concrete deck over the top carrying the ‘Telford Gardens’ complex – a large shopping centre and 4,992 apartments across 41 towers.

Train entering the east end of the shed at Kowloon Bay depot: buildings on the podium as with every other MTR depot

The fledgling Mass Transit Railway Corporation was handed the land at Kowloon Bay by the Hong Kong government, with the proceeds of the property development helping to fund the rest of the initial MTR system. The presentation ‘The Making of the Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong‘ by Fujio Mizuoka (Graduate School of Economics, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo) has more to say on the topic:

  • The colonial government offered the land of $170 million for the purpose of car barn itself and HK$165 million for the title to develop the space above for residential and commercial purposes, for free.
  • In exchange for this government offer, the MTR Corporation issued equity of the same value and the colonial government accepted it.
  • In short, the Telford Garden constituted an equity injection of HK$335 million from the colonial government.
  • Property development raised 18.6% of the construction cost to the MTR Corporation for the Modified Initial System.
  • Revenue from property development depended, however, much upon the market conditions and therefore rather uncertain.
  • The colonial government offered unusually favourable terms for land tenure in releasing the Crown land, especially for the years when property market is in stagnation.
  • In all, the MTR Corporation developed 19 projects along the Modified Initial System, Tsuen Wan Extension and Island Line put together.

The same development model was followed during the construction of the Tsuen Wan line, where the depot is located beneath the ‘Luk Yeung Sun Chuen’ development – 4,000 apartments across 17 towers.

Track fan outside Tsuen Wan depot

Finally, the construction of the Island line resulted in Chai Wan depot and the even more massive Heng Fa Chuen residential estate, with 6,504 apartments across 48 buildings.

Chai Wan Depot

The Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation also entered the property game in the 1980s, developing the ‘Jubilee Garden’ estate atop their existing Ho Tung Lau Depot outside Sha Tin in the New Territories, where 9 blocks of residential buildings house a total of 2,260 apartments atop the concrete podium.

Train depot under apartment towers

In the 1990s the combination of railway extensions and property development was stepped up another notch, with the construction of the new Lantau Airport Railway being coupled with the establishment of entire new town at Tung Chung, with a target population of 250,000 people.

Leaving Tung Chung behind

Called ‘value capture’, the principle is explained by Robert Cervero and Jin Murakami in their 2008 paper “Rail + Property Development: A model of sustainable transit finance and urbanism“:

MTRC does not receive any cash subsidies from the Hong Kong government to build railway infrastructure; instead it receives an in‐kind contribution in the form of a land grant that gives the company exclusive development rights for land above and adjacent to its stations. These grants relieve MTRC from purchasing land on the open market. To generate income, MTRC capitalizes on the real‐estate development potential of its stations.

The specific mechanism for capturing rail’s value‐added is as follows. MTRC purchases development rights from the Hong Kong government at a “before rail” price and sells these rights to a selected developer (among a list of qualified bidders) at an “after rail” price.7 The differences are often substantial and are able to cover the cost of railway investments.

The Hong Kong government, the majority shareholder of MTRC, seeds the process by granting MTRC exclusive development rights based on the “greenfield” site value (i.e., pre‐rail price). MTRC also negotiates a share of future property‐development profits and/or a co‐ownership position from the highest bidder. Thus MTRC receives a “front end” payment for land and a “back end” share of revenues and assets in‐kind.

Decisions around what land to develop are complex, and set in parallel with the Hong Kong government. Cervero and Murakami continue:

What triggers rail and property projects are future plans to extend MTR lines or construct new ones, consistent with regional land‐use and urban development goals set by Hong Kong government.

MTRC staff works closely with government planners and transportation professionals to define and assess the comparative costs of different alignment and station‐siting options. They also discuss property development opportunities that enhance financial returns of the railway investment and promote long‐range planning objectives.

The assembly of land uses to be built at the station is largely determined by market demand, constrained by zoning regulations. Commercial property development has occurred mostly at and near central‐city MTR stations while residential projects have been built mainly in outlying areas and at terminal stations.

The end result is the corporation deriving around 60 percent of total income from property development – more than twice as much as farebox revenues.


Despite the Airport Express railway and Tung Chung lines marking a massive expansion of the MTR Corporation property portfolio, the depot for the new route was a break from the past – built on reclaimed land at Siu Ho Wan on the shores of Lantau Island, almost two decades after opening the depot is still just a shed in the middle of nowhere.

Airport Express train beside the main shed at Siu Ho Wan depot

Further reading

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Riding the Kowloon Canton Railway in 1993

Here is another find from YouTube – footage from a ride on the Kowloon Canton Railway circa 1993.

The first half of the video covers the journey from Kowloon Station to Lo Wu and a look across the border into mainland China, while the return trip ends at Kowloon Tong station.

Here is a full rundown:

  • 0:00 Cross Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hom
  • 0:10 Kowloon station (now Hung Hom station) exterior and pedestrian concourses
  • 0:26 Ticket machines on the station concourse
  • 0:35 Split-flap departure board
  • 0:42 Unrefurbished KCR EMU awaiting departure
  • 0:49 Other trains arrive and depart the station
  • 1:10 Roller blind destination board on the front of a train
  • 1:13 Departing Kowloon station
  • 1:30 Interior view of an unrefurbished KCR EMU
  • 1:37 Passing through Mong Kok station
  • 1:46 Looking across to Lion Rock
  • 1:52 747 passes overhead on final approach to Kai Tak Airport
  • 2:00 Looking across at Sha Tin
  • 2:04 Fo Tan station
  • 2:25 University station
  • 2:45 Interior view of a first class carriage
  • 2:56 Paralleling the Tolo Highway
  • 3:17 Looking across a curve towards a train coming the other way
  • 3:45 Tai Po Market station
  • 4:00 freight train passes out the window
  • 4:13 Tai Wo station
  • 4:22 Inside a sound barrier tunnel
  • 4:34 Village houses in the New Territories
  • 4:50 Approaching Fanling – Sheung Shui New Town
  • 5:05 Fanling station
  • 5:35 Interior view of a first class carriage
  • 5:52 Stabled ballast cleaning machine in the yard at Lo Wu
  • 6:05 More stabled track machines
  • 6:07 Looking across to the massive pipes that bring water from mainland China into Hong Kong
  • 6:20 Automated announcement approaching Lo Wu
  • 6:57 The platform ahead is occupied by another train, so the driver is apologising for the delay
  • 7:04 China Railways wagons in the freight yard at Lo Wu
  • 7:25 Stabled KCR diesel locomotive beside the maintenance shed
  • 7:35 More massive water pipes
  • 7:38 Arrival at Lo Wu station
  • 7:45 Chaotic mainland traffic outside Lo Wu station
  • 8:00 Demolishing buildings in Shenzhen
  • 8:08 Departing Lo Wu, looking at a KCR Single Journey Ticket
  • 8:14 Passing through the New Territories countryside
  • 8:26 Interior of a standard class carriage
  • 8:32 Looking across the water of Tolo Harbour towards Ma On Shan
  • 8:50 Paralleling the Tolo Highway
  • 8:58 Train departing Kowloon Tong station
  • 9:37 Through Train hauled by a China Railways diesel locomotive (DF4 class?) passes through Kowloon Tong station, hauling a train of white carriages with a light blue stripe
  • 10:19 Exterior of Kowloon Tong station


At the very end a Cathay Pacific 747 on final approach to the former Kai Tak airport.

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Seating onboard MTR trains

With eight carriages long trains operating on most lines of the MTR, the interior of the passenger saloon seems to keep on going, and going, and going.

An almost empty train on Hong Kong's MTR?

As for seating, longitudinal bench seats are the order of the day, of two different types. The ex-KCR fleet has horrible seating that is just flat benches: slouching is out of the question because your bum slides right off, and the lack of defined individual seats means your neighbour might end up a little too close for comfort.

Inside a Metro Cammell EMU

On the original MTR fleet the seats are a bit better, with each bench being broken up into individual seats.

'Seats' on Hong Kong's MTR trains

However on some of the busier lines even bench seats take up too much room, so ‘bum racks’ have been installed in their place. I believe the Island Line is the only one to have trains so fitted.

Wheelchair area on a MTR train

If you want a plush seat, then trains on the Disneyland Resort Line might be more up your alley.

Onboard a Disneyland Resort Line train

First class on the East Rail Line takes the level of comfort up another notch, for an additional fee.

First class seating in a refurbished Metro Cammell EMU

But the Airport Express is the fanciest at all. (and you would hope so given the HK$100 fare!)

Onboard the Airport Express train


The walk through design of MTR trains also makes evacuation easy – at each end is an emergency exit that leads into a cab, where a ramp can be lowered from the front of the train onto the track, allowing passengers to walk along the tracks in the tunnel to safety.

Emergency exit on a MTR train in Hong Kong

Unfortunately in the case of Hong Kong’s newest Chinese-built trains, the emergency exit design has run into many problems.

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Underground stations – living in the 1970s

I don’t visit Sydney, Australia often, but the last time I did, I spent my time in much the same way I did during my last trip to Hong Kong – riding around on trains and ferries.

During my travels I passed through the underground platforms at Redfern station for the Eastern Suburbs Railway.

Escalators down to platform 11/12 at Redfern

On seeing the escalator shafts I was immediately reminded of Hong Kong – the brown mosaic tiles took me back to the older parts of the MTR network, such as Sheung Wan station on the MTR Island Line.

Escalators and advertising at Sheung Wan station


The answer is yes: while Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs Railway and Hong Kong’s MTR network were both constructed during the late 1970s and has similar cost constraints placed upon them, different architecture firms were involved in each city.

For the Sydney station, the heritage listing for another ESR stations describes the brief presented to the architects responsible, Fowell Mansfield Jarvis and Maclurcan Pty Ltd:

Each of the new stations on the ESR, designed by Sydney architects Fowell Mansfield Jarvis and Maclurcan Pty Ltd, was given a unique colour scheme to differentiate it from the others and to give the new stations a modern look and maintaining a human scale in the underground setting.

As for Hong Kong, every station on the original MTR network was designed by one man – Italian architect Roland Romano Paoletti. This article about London’s Jubilee Line Extension details the rise of his career, and the constraints he had to work with:

The manner in which a whole new underground system was slashed into the fabric of Hong Kong was impressive but brutal, and hardly conducive to grace. Accountants were in charge; there were neither town-planners nor structural engineers, let alone architects, just mud-movers and alignment engineers.

In the stations, Paoletti ended by reducing to basics the elegant fit-out proposed by the English gentlemen Modernists of Sir Misha Black’s Design Research Unit. The Hong Kong lines were built by the cut-and-cover method, not in deep-bored tunnels, so the stations emerged as raw, horizontal caverns, vast enough to accommodate trains twice the length you have in London, and differentiated by colour alone. Efficiency was the brief, not salvation.

The similarity makes me wonder – have architects from other cities around the world also borrowed the same palette of mosaic tiles to decorate their railway stations.

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