Back in the early 1980s the Kowloon Canton Railway through Hong Kong underwent a massive transformation – from a single track country railway to the modern double mass transit system it is today.
It was during this period that the Hong Kong Government ran a series of public service announcements warning people to keep off the tracks.
Previously residents of the sparsely populated New Territories had used the railway tracks as a shortcut between local villages, and doing so without incident due to the slow and noisy diesel trains giving plenty of warning of their arrival. However the coming of the electric trains changed this, with their ability to sneak up silently yet speedily to anyone on the tracks.
Electrification of the line also added another risk – death by electrocution, due to the new high voltage overhead wires. The KCR placed signs along the railway warning of the hazards, through interestingly they lacked any English text.
It has been three years since my last visit to Hong Kong, and in that time there has been a number of changes to local transport.
First off are new trains. Manufactured by Changchun Railway Vehicles in Mainland China, the first of these new C-Train units entered service on the Mass Transit Railway in 2011.
New trams have also entered service on the Hong Kong Tramways. Known as the ‘Seventh Generation’ tramcars, the new units combine modern technology with the classic double deck tramcar look and feel that are a city icon.
Out in the New Territories the refurbishment of older light rail vehicles has also been carried out. In 2011 the MTR commenced the refurbishment of the Phase I units built by Comeng in Melbourne in 1988, and with their new fronts and livery, they now look similar to the newest Phase IV LRVs.
Cross-border Intercity Through Train services have also seen some changes. During my last visit the KTT was covered with an all over advertising livery for the 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou, China. Now is is back in the standard white, teal and blue livery.
China Railways have also changed the rolling stock used on their services into Hong Kong, with the older 25Z class carriages now replaced by those of the more luxurious 25T class. Presumably with the spread of the CRH high speed rail network across China has enabled the cascading down of carriage stock to other services.
Stations on the Mass Transit Railway has also been modernised, with above ground stations on the Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan and Island Lines finally being sealed off from the tracks, after being retrofitted with half-height ‘automatic platform gates’. The underground stations had been retrofitted with full height platform screen doors a number of years earlier.
Ticketing system have also been updated, with the MTR starting to withdraw their existing magnetic-strip Single Journey Tickets from sale, replacing them with new ‘Smart Tickets‘ – an Octopus-style touch card that gets collected on exit.
However the biggest changes are the construction of new railway lines – five of which are well underway.
The first is the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which will being the CRH high speed railway network across the border from China into Hong Kong via a 26 kilometer long tunnel to the new West Kowloon Terminus. Located between Austin and Kowloon MTR stations, the massive new railway station will form a new gateway to the city from the mainland.
A new railway with more localised impacts is the Sha Tin to Central Link – it will extend the existing Ma On Shan line underground into Kowloon, then under Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island, with interchanges to other MTR lines at Diamond Hill, Ho Man Tin and Hung Hom stations.
Rush-hour chaos may foil balloons on MTR Friday, 01 March, 1996 By John Flint and and Michelle Chin
Children’s foil balloons may be outlawed in MTR stations after a rogue Minnie Mouse balloon floated into a tunnel and brought rush-hour traffic to a halt.
About 100,000 commuters were forced to wait in stations on the Island line after the helium-filled balloon tripped an electric current and burned through an overhead cable.
The incident happened at 6.46 am in Causeway Bay, bringing all trains between Admiralty and Quarry Bay to a standstill for 11/2 hours.
The Mass Transit Railway Corporation said it was considering a ban on the balloons particularly during festivals.
But that would force the company to hire security guards to take the balloons from children, it conceded.
Operations director Bill Donald said the corporation did not want a reputation as a kill-joy and would try to find a practical compromise.
He said runaway balloons caused hundreds of stoppages each year, including 10 during Lunar New Year. Yesterday’s was the only balloon to sever a power line, creating chaos and forcing emergency repairs.
Power is normally restored within minutes of a cable being short-circuited by a stray balloon – but MTR investigators suspect the latest culprit had an unusually tough skin.
‘Normally the balloons would be burned up by the overhead cables,’ Mr Donald said.
The investigation will examine whether metallic balloons are being made more durable.
It’s taken me three years, but I’ve finally made my way back to Hong Kong, having just returned from a two week visit. I also paid a visit to the mainland, visiting the cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Xian, along with a few journeys on the CRH high speed rail network.
For a railway network built only a few decades ago, access for disabled people to Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway leaves something to be desired. With much of the original network only recently made accessible, why did stairs and escalators rule the system?
The Coalition of Access of the MTR for Disabled Persons argued that the MTR system should be accessible to all people. The MTRC, on the other hand, argued that it would be operationally unsafe to allow disabled persons to use the system.
The MTRC’s assertion was based on a consultancy study completed in 1973. The study found that it would be inappropriate to allow disabled persons to use the system due to the high passengers flows.
Despite much bargaining and negotiation with government, the Coalition failed to persuade the MTRC to change its decision. As a result, there is no provision of access facilities for disabled persons in the MTR system.
This lack of access facilities can be seen across the Island, Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan lines that formed the first phase of the MTR system: each station has stairs from street level to the concourse, turnstiles instead of gates into the paid area, and finally escalators down to the platforms – catching the train is quite a hike.
It took until 1991 for the MTR to review their policy, when the decision was made that all new lines would be built with accessibility in mind, and all existing stations would be progressively retrofitted to meet modern accessibility standards. Since then, the newly built Airport Express, Tung Chung, Tseung Kwan O and Disneyland Resort railway lines have all been designed and built to give equal access for all passengers.
As for the existing network, in the four years from 1992 the MTR brought the number of stations accessible to disabled users, including the wheelchair-bound, from zero to 35 out of the 38 stations on the network, and by 2006 HK$400 million had been spent on retrofitting existing stations, with an additional HK$100 million committed in the five years to 2011.
The nature of the retrofit works varied from station to station, depending on the restrictions of the site, and included works such as lifts, stair lifts, wheelchair aids, ramps and wide ticket gates. Despite the effort made, not all stations entrances are fully accessible, as devices such as stair lifts and wheelchair aids force intending users to wait for staff assistance, limiting their independence.
The final aim of the retrofit program is to provide at least one external lift at every station to connect the station concourse area with the street level. By 2013 all but nine of the 83 stations had this facility, with work under way to install lifts at seven more stations by 2015, leaving only deep level stations at Fortress Hill and Tin Hau subject to further design investigation.
The vast majority of MTR stations have multiple entrances: usually stairs between ground level and the concourse are provided, with external lifts being the exception.
Back in 2010 Prince Edward Station didn’t have an external lift, so the use of a stair lift was required for passengers in wheelchairs.
The original MTR stations used turnstiles to enforce the payment of fares, which are difficult for the less able bodied to pass through.
Newer stations use ticket gates to do the same job with less restrictions.
While older stations have been retrofitted with wide gates to give wheelchair access.
Once inside, tactile paths direct the vision impaired towards the trains.
Across the newer parts of the network, level access between train and platform is standard.
However on the older East Rail line, wheelchair ramps are required to bridge the gap.
Once onboard the train, wheelchair areas are provided.
Things I haven’t seen elsewhere
Audible warning signals are installed at each escalator, either at platform and/or concourse level, with different tones allowing the vision impaired to determine which was the escalator is running.
They make a continual clicking noise, that would get very annoying if you are standing nearby, except for the fact you’re never waiting very long for a train on the MTR!
Another feature are tactile station maps.
The Braille text provides guidance information, while the map itself is three dimensional, describing the accessible routes through the station.
The finishing touch is the cute musical tune that it plays, allowing the vision impaired to find it among the busy station!