New ‘lift only’ MTR station entrances

On December 28, 2014 the new West Island Line of the MTR opened, extending the existing Island Line to the western end of Hong Kong Island at Kennedy Town. Along the way are two intermediate stations – Sai Ying Pun and HKU – which both feature something new on the rail network of Hong Kong: ‘lift-only entrances’.

Diagram of platform, concourse and exits at HKU Station on the MTR West Island Line

Across the Hong Kong MTR network escalators and stairs are the standard method of access to station concourses and platforms, due to their high passenger carrying capacity, with lifts having been provided in later years to cater for people with limited mobility.

However in the case of the new West Island Line stations, the steep slopes of Hong Kong Island make this difficult – HKU station is 70 metres below ground at the University of Hong Kong exit:

Cross section diagram of HKU Station on the MTR West Island Line

With Sai Ying Pun station also having a planned exit on Bonham Road, located on a hill 50 metres above the station.

Cross section diagram of Sai Ying Pun Station on the MTR West Island Line

The world’s deepest metro station is Arsenalna (Арсенальна) on the Kiev Metro in Ukraine – at 105.5 metres below ground it has two flights of escalators linking the platform to the surface – so the depth itself wasn’t an unsolved problem.

However back in Hong Kong, the MTR took a different approach to their deep level stations: high-speed lifts. Their media release from November 2014 has the following to say:

When HKU Station opens at the end of December and Sai Ying Pun Station opens at the end of the first quarter of 2015 on the extended MTR Island Line, they will be the first stations in the rail network to feature “Lift-only Entrances”, which connect the hillside and lower levels in Western District, for the convenience of passengers and pedestrians alike.

At HKU Station, a total of 12 lifts have been installed in the unpaid area to connect the station concourse level with Pok Fu Lam Road and the University of Hong Kong. At Sai Ying Pun Station, eight lifts will serve the Bonham Road and First Street/Second Street entrances.

They go on to explain how the lifts will cope with the large number of passengers expected to use the station:

To ensure a smooth flow of people, each lift at the Lift-only Entrances is designed with doors on two sides, one for users to enter and the other for exit. Special queuing arrangements will be implemented with clearly marked lift positions and queue lines.

As well as the safety features fitted to the lifts, allowing them to be used for the evacuation of the station during a fire or other emergency:

The Lift-only Entrances feature enhanced designs from normal lifts including:

  • Dual feed essential power supply, fire resistant power cable and addition of individual control function to enhance reliability;
  • Extra fire and smoke protection devices such as fire curtains, pressurised refuge lift lobbies and protected staircases to enhance passenger safety in emergency cases;
  • Flashing signs and public announcements to direct passengers to leave the station safely via protected staircases and refuge lifts in the event of fire in nearby passageways;
  • Designated refuge points for persons with disabilities;

Following a media tour of the new HKU station, the South China Morning Post wrote of the safety features:

Emergency ‘refuge areas’ at deepest MTR stop
Timmy Sung
Thursday, 20 November, 2014

Passengers in the MTR’s biggest and deepest underground station will evacuate to “refuge areas” in case of fire, the corporation said yesterday as it insisted facilities on its new West Island Line were safe.

The company’s head of operations, Francis Li Shing-kee, said each lift could carry up to 28 passengers to the surface in less than 30 seconds and would also be used for evacuation in case of fire.

He said passengers would be directed to “refuge areas” to take the lifts, one level above the concourse, in case of emergency.

“The passengers are pretty much safe once they enter the refuge area, because the area is covered with fire systems like sprinklers and it is pressurised,” Li said, adding that passengers could either choose to take the lifts to the ground or use an emergency stairway.

Fire curtains will also drop down automatically to cover the lifts’ doors to stop the spread of smoke and the lifts have two independent power supplies to enhance their reliability, the MTR said. There are also designated refuge points for disabled people.

Li said the shelter design and use of lifts for evacuation were the first of their kind in the MTR’s network, and that they had met all the government’s safety requirements.

Drills were also carried out to familiarise staff with the emergency procedures.

The MTR Corporation uploaded this video to YouTube to describe how the lift-only entrances work, as well as showing off the emergency refuge areas.

At concourse level each lift lobby there is a dedicated queuing area.

HKU station: lift-only entrance at concourse level

Each lift has two sets of doors, with the ‘exit’ set opening before the ‘entry’ doors in order to enforce a one way flow of passengers.

HKU station: double doors at the lift-only entrance

The staircase leading to the emergency refuge area is found behind the lift lobby.

HKU station: stairs to the emergency refuge area at the lift-only entrance

Passengers head up the stairs to the smoke and fire proof room.

HKU station: emergency exit at the lift-only entrance

Passengers can wait in safety for the next lift to arrive, to take them back to the surface.

HKU station: emergency refuge area at the lift-only entrance

The alternative route is 12 floors of stairs!

HKU station: 12 floors up if you decide to use the emergency stairs

The same lifts serve both the station concourse and the refuge area, as can be seen by the buttons inside the lift.

HKU station: button for the ’refuge area’ at lift-only entrance

Building emergency refuge areas would have been an expensive exercise, but was required by government regulations – passengers evacuating a smoke filled station can’t just stand around waiting for a lift back to the surface! Instead, the refuge provides a safe place for the crowds expected to be inside the station to wait, allowing them to slowly make their way out of the station via the lifts over an extended period of time.

Long queues?

Since HKU Station serves a busy university campus, seeing large crowds isn’t something completely unexpected. However this video from January 19, 2015 shows some very long lines to access the station.

Given that it shows the first evening rush hour of the term, it raises a question: will the lifts cater for the expected number of passengers in rush hour, or are the queues just teething troubles caused by commuters not yet familiar with the new arrangements?

A few more videos

On November 19, 2014 local English-language TV station TVB Pearl ran a piece on the new station and lift-only exits:

As did the Chinese-language Now TV:

However if you are still feeling confused by the lift-only exits, this video from HKU station shows you them from concourse to surface.

Technical details

This brochure on the lift-only entrances has been released by the MTR – as a 26 MB PDF document.

The MTR media release from November 2014 included a fact sheet detailing the specifications of the lifts at each station:

HKU Station (located 70 metres underground)

  • Entrance A1 and A2 – University of Hong Kong
  • Number of lifts: 8
  • Maximum loading capacity: 1,800 kg per lift
  • Entrance C – Pok Fu Lam Road
  • Number of lifts: 4
  • Maximum loading: 2,100 kg per lift

Sai Ying Pun Station (located 50 metres underground)

  • Entrance B1 and B2 – First Street/Second Street
  • Number of lifts: 4
  • Maximum loading capacity: 2,100 kg per lift
  • Entrance C – Bonham Road
  • Number of lifts: 4
  • Maximum loading: 2,100 kg per lift

The use of smaller lifts at exit A1 and A2 at HKU seems curious – perhaps there were space constraints due to the larger number of lifts fitted in the shaft?

Overseas examples

Lift-only station entrances are not unheard of elsewhere in the world – Covent Garden tube station on the London Underground is one of the best known examples. Geoff Marshall’s ‘Tube Facts’ website lists the rest of the London Underground stations that rely on lifts: 19 in total!

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Hong Kong construction photos from mid-1990s

The 1990s was a massive decade for major infrastructure projects in Hong Kong, with the construction of the new Chek Lap Kok airport and associated transport connections occupying the city. Recently I discovered an extract of the book “15 Most Outstanding projects in Hong Kong” by Raymond Wong Wai Man, and it features construction photos from many of these projects.

Lantau Link at sunset

My top 5 picks are:

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Moving dangerous goods on the seas of Hong Kong

On the waters of Hong Kong one can find many vessels carrying dangerous goods through the busy shipping lanes of Victoria Harbour.

Mid-stream cargo handling in Hong Kong

Some of the ships are large.

TurboJet hydrofoil cuts across the bow of tanker 'Golden Fareast' off Hong Kong Island

Others are much smaller.

Oil product tanker 'Carrie' on Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour

As well as ships transporting goods, there are also bunker barges – vessels that refuel larger ships.

Dangerous goods vessel 'Wui Tung 6' beside Hong Kong Island

There is a dedicated fleet of vessels operated by Hong Kong’s Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) for the delivery of explosives.

Explosive carrying vessel "Eversafe No. 1" off West Kowloon in Hong Kong

And finally, road vehicles loaded with dangerous goods are not permitted in the road tunnels linking Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, so the Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry Company operates a vehicular ferry service.

It operates two dangerous goods ferry routes: a 12 minute run between North Point on Hong Kong Island and Kwun Tong in Kowloon around ten times a day, and an as-required service to Mui Wo on Lantau Island which takes around 90 minutes one way.

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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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