Hong Kong Airport’s driverless train

In Hong Kong the city isn’t the only place where you find trains: if you head down to the basement of the airport you will find yet another rail network. Officially known as the “Hong Kong International Airport Automated People Mover“, it is one of two driverless trains in Hong Kong, the other being the MTR’s Disneyland Resort Line that I described in an earlier post.

Passengers wait for an arriving train at West Hall

The system uses “Crystal Mover” trains and guideways manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which are also used on many other airport people movers around the world. The first section of the network was built by Mitsubishi and opened with the airport (marked in blue), with later expansion of the network (marked in red) carried out by another Japanese firm, Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries. Today there are four stations on a 3.8 kilometre long route underneath the terminals.

Overall view of the APM network

The train themselves are rubber tyred and run upon a concrete track with steel guiderails either side, the track gauge being 1700 mm with a guide face spacing of 2800 mm. Traction power is 3-phase 600 volt AC 50 Hz, sourced from a rigid conductor 3-wire busbar mounted to one side of the guideway, with side mounted collector skids on the trains.

Departing the station bound for gates 33-80

With 1.3 km of guideway, the first section of the system is located in the basement of Terminal 1, linking the customs and immigration counters at East Hall with the boarding gates at West Hall, giving passengers using gates 33 though 80 a faster way to travel through the massive terminal. When opened in July 1998 four 2-car long trains were in use, giving a passenger capacity of 5,270 passengers per hour per direction.

The two stations are located 750 meters apart with two parallel tracks running between them, and a number of crossovers at each end. Each station is provided with two separate side platforms, in order to keep arriving and departing passenger streams apart. The initial track configuration in 1998 was as follows.

Initial track layout

Initial track layout, 1998

With this layout, two modes of operation are possible:

  • Shuttle: each track having one train running upon it, shuttling back and forth between the two stations. Each train stays on the same track, serving the same two platforms, with no need for the crossovers.
  • Pinched loop: each track is used in one direction, with trains switching tracks on a crossover located beyond the passenger platform, changing direction, then returning along the second track, where the same manoeuvre is carried out at the opposite end. In this mode each train serves all four platforms, but only carries passengers on two out of four legs of the circuit, to stop passengers moving between the arrival and departure streams of the airport.

The pinched loop configuration with multiple trains increases the capacity of the overall system, hence it is the mode used today. Left hand running is used, westbound trains carrying departing passengers headed for their boarding gates at West Hall, with eastbound trains carrying arriving passengers bound for customs and immigration at East Hall.

All crossovers in the guideway are located beyond the passenger platforms, and are automatically operated.

Crossover in the tunnel

Each platform caters for trains up to four carriages long, with Westinghouse platform screen doors along the edge to keep passengers off the tracks.

Westbound platform at West Hall, where passengers disembark

Emergency evacuation of trains can be carried out via the walkway located at platform level between the tracks, with exit stairs located along the tunnel leading out of the basement tunnel.

Running inside the tunnel (which is actually the airport basement)

As usage of the the airport increased, additional capacity was required on the APM, the system being expected to reach capacity by 2006. In 2002/03 the dwell time of trains at stations was reduced to only 30 seconds, and in 2004/05 three additional 4-car trains were ordered. These trains were built by Japanese firm Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI Corporation) in cooperation with subsidiary Niigata Transys. On delivery in December 2005 they took the fleet size to 20 carriages, and enabled 2 minute headways to operate on the APM.

'Next train in 1 minute' - trains run about every 2 to 3 minutes

By the mid 2000s construction started on an expansion of the airport itself, featuring an additional terminal (Terminal 2 / SkyPlaza) to the east of Terminal 1, and a cross-border ferry terminal on the waterfront of the airport island (SkyPier).

The name ‘Terminal 2’ is somewhat misleading: it only caters to departing passengers, and lacks any kind of aircraft boarding facilities! Instead the terminal consists only of check-in counters and an immigration checkpoint for departing passengers, with passengers still using the boarding gates attached to Terminal 1. SkyPier is another unique concept, consisting of a ferry pier located inside the secure area of the airport, permitting passengers to transfer from aircraft to ferries bound for ports in Macau and Mainland China (and vice versa), without needing to proceed through another set of immigration and security checks.

As both of these new facilities would be inside the secure area of the airport, it was decided to link them to the existing Terminal 1 by an extension of the APM line. IHI Corporation won the contract to build the extension, having successfully supplied trains for the APM system some years earlier.

Phase 1 of the APM expansion opened with Terminal 2 in February 2007, linking the new terminal to the East Hall station of Terminal 1 with an additional 550 metres of single track. The station at Terminal 2 is an single platform face in the building basement, while the platform at Terminal 1 forms an island platform with the existing arrivals bound face at East Hall, allowing passenger to continue westbound if required by their boarding gate.

Phase 2 opened in late 2009 to connect the APM to SkyPier, the original scheduled date being spring 2008. Around 650 metres of single track forms the connection to Terminal 2, with a single platform located beneath the SkyPier building. To run the additional services, eight new APM cars built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were delivered in July 2009, formed in two 4-car trains.

Today the network is operated as two segments: the original Terminal 1 / Passenger Terminal Building (PTB) line in blue, and the Terminal 2 / SkyPlaza line in red.

Complete system as of 2009

Complete system as of 2009

Over this network, a number of routes operate:

  • Westbound (departures):
    • SkyPier to Terminal 1 East Hall (SkyPlaza line)
    • Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 East Hall (SkyPlaza line)
    • Terminal 1 East Hall to West Hall (PTB line)
  • Eastbound (arrivals):
    • Terminal 1 West Hall to East Hall (PTB line)
    • Terminal 1 East Hall to SkyPier (SkyPlaza line)

The general public are not allowed to travel on any other routes not listed, with a security guard checking each train is empty before it departs a station for another part of the network. This is the arrivals platform at Terminal 1 on the SkyPlaza line – only staff are permitted to use the train back to the SkyPier.

No entry on trains headed this direction

The PTB line operates with four trains in the ‘pinched loop’ configuration, each track being used in a single direction, with trains running empty cars to changing tracks at a crossover beyond the platform. These videos from YouTube show the ‘revenue’ part of the operation – westbound from T1 East Hall, for departing passengers.

Eastbound from T1 West Hall, for arriving passengers.

The single track SkyPlaza line works as a shuttle with two train sets, which pass each other at the central passing loop and platform. Only westbound trains stop at Terminal 2 to pick up passengers, no platform was provided for eastbound trains as they only move passengers from Terminal 1 arrivals to SkyPier.

In order to segregate arriving and departing passenger streams, the SkyPier and East Hall stations each have two platform faces located beside each other. At these stations trains drop off passengers at one platform, shuffle a short distance down the track to collect waiting passengers from the second platform, then head off to the other end of the line.

A complete trip on the SkyPlaza line can been seen in these videos, the first three videos appear to have been filmed during the commissioning of the SkyPier extension.

Looking backwards from an eastbound train, Terminal 1 to SkyPier, passing the boarded up eastbound platform at Terminal 1, and making a stop at the non-existent Terminal 2 platform (you also get a look at the tracks leading from the depot):

Westbound SkyPier to Terminal 2.

And finally, westbound Terminal 2 to Terminal 1, filmed on a revenue service in the days before before the SkyPier extension was operating.

Maintenance of the network was originally carried out under the terms of the 3 year warranty by Mitsubishi, with the MTR Corporation taking over in 2001, who retain the contract to this day. The train depot is located at the eastern end of the original APM network beyond the main passenger terminal, but with the expansion of the airport it is now located directly below the coach station at Terminal 2. New trains are delivered to the system by crane through an opening in the depot roof.

The next phase of airport development to affect the APM is the construction of midfield concourse, located west of the existing terminal building. Announced in June 2010 and to be completed by 2015, the new concourse will be an island among the airport taxiways and aprons, with the existing East Hall – West Hall APM link extended under the airfield to a station beneath the new concourse.

To finish up, here are some links to some websites with some additional details and photos:

You might have noticed I haven’t talked about the trains yet: that will be in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!

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