The demise of rail freight in Hong Kong

Ten years ago a passenger waiting for a train on the East Rail Line had a good chance of seeing a lengthy freight train go speeding past, but over the intervening years the consists had shrunk to just a single wagon, and by June 2010 there were no freights at all. So why did they disappear?

Through freight services between Hong Kong and Mainland China commenced in the 1950s, when the Kowloon-Canton Railway was a single track line that only saw a dozen or so trains a day. The 1982 modernisation project transformed the line into what it is today – a busy passenger link between Kowloon and the new towns of the New Territories – but freight services still found a path between the modern EMUs.

The freight trains themselves were made of up of wagons provided by China Railways, but were hauled through Hong Kong by the KCR’s fleet of EMD powered diesel-electrics locomotives, which were of three different types.

With the railway still operated by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, freight traffic remained an side business to the much more intensive passenger services. Southbound traffic dominated, with trains carrying livestock, textiles, foodstuff, metal, timber, clothing, footwear and chemicals across the border from China. Traffic in the reverse direction was mostly loaded containers from the wharf at Hung Hom. The main freight destinations inside China were Guangdong, Sichuan, Hubei, Henan, Shanghai, and Hunan.

For passengers the most noticeable cargo on the line was the transport of pigs from farms in Mainland China to Hong Kong slaughterhouses, with the trains stinking out platforms as they rolled through on their way to the livestock depot at Hung Hom. Thankfully a new slaughterhouse opened near the border at Sheung Shui in 2000, putting an end to the horrible stench experienced by waiting passengers.

"Rail Livestock Depot" near Hung Hom station

Other than pigs, the other major cargo was containers moving from the Port of Hong Kong to recipients throughout southern China. The peak year of operations was 1987, when the line carried 200,000 TEUs of containers. From then time on container traffic was in continued decline, due to competition from road transport, and the rapid development of new port facilities in Mainland China that usurped those in Hong Kong.

As well as competition from competing carriers and terminals, KCR freight trains were also threatened by the increasing number of passengers travelling by rail, as the two classes of train needed to share the double tracks of the East Rail Line. To address the conflict the KCR drew up plans for the “Port Rail Line”, which would link the border crossing at Lo Wu with Hong Kong’s main container terminal at Kwai Chung. Included in the 2000 ‘Second Railway Development Study’ and costed at HK$5 billion to HK$9 billion, two routes were considered:

  • Lo Wu to Tai Wai via the existing East Rail, then a tunnel under the mountains to the Port of Hong Kong.
  • New track from Lo Wu to Lok Ma Chau spur line, shared track with the new “Northern Link” to Kam Sheung Road Station, then shared tracks with West Rail.

The KCRC justified the new link as it would reduce the reliance on trucks moving containers in and out of the port, but the study found that the new line would only be viable if the level of cross-border freight was to grow.

This upwards trend in traffic never materialised, despite a few minor increases, such as those detailed in the 1999 KCRC Annual Report (page 1) (page 2):

Total revenue from freight forwarding stood at $24 million, an 85% increase from $13 million in 1998. Container traffic increased by 34% to 10,086 TEUs in 1999. Breakbulk traffic dropped 8% to 15,269 wagons and livestock wagons decreased 8% to 10,409 wagons.

Despite the 34% “growth” in container traffic, the total TEUs (20-foot containers) carried in 1999 was 1/20th of that carried back in the peak of 1987. Because of the slump, in 2000 the KCRC phased out their freight forwarding business to the mainland, citing competition from trucking companies. Over the next five years the freight volumes continued to slip, from 2.5 million tonnes in 1998 to 1.2 million tonnes in 2004.

MTR freight yard at Hung Hom

This slump was despite the Hong Kong freight transport market experiencing average growth of 9.7% per annum between 1990 and 1999, and lead to the KCRC’s net profit from freight operations declining sharply:

YearNet profit/loss
1990$59.7 million
1996$7.7 million
1997$10.4 million
1998-$23.5 million
1999-$17.0 million

The impact on train sizes can also be visualised from the KCRC’s annual reports, which listed the average number of wagons per train:

YearAverage southbound wagons / dayAverage northbound wagons / day
19996124
20014918
20025222

Despite all of the doom and gloom, in the early 2000s it appears the Corporation still thought they had a place in the competitive cross-border freight market, when they spent HK$130 million for five new Siemens Eurorunner 2,000 kW locomotives (US$3.3 million each) which were delivered in 2003.

Siemens “Eurorunner” ER20 diesel-electric

In an effort to arrest the decline in freight traffic, the Corporation announced in 2005 plans to re-enter the freight forwarding business that it has previously abandoned in 2000, managing the entire door-to-door transport of goods, instead of being a linehaul operator between rail terminals. Aiming to improve the level of service provided to their customers and capture a slice of the heavy cargo traffic in the Pearl River Delta, the KCRC was motived by a desire to diversify their revenue beyond passenger trains and real estate developments, in preparation for the upcoming merger of Hong Kong’s two rail operators: the KCRC and the MTR Corporation.

These moves ware not successful, and by 2008 rail freight accounted for only 0.08% of the total freight throughput between the Mainland and Hong Kong, with only 12,000 TEUs moved per year, or about 30 TEUs a day. Towards the end of freight operations the longest trains consisted of 10 to 20 wagons, with a mix of enclosed boxvans and open wagons loaded with containers. The only other traffic was bulk mail, which was conveyed from the International Mail Centre at Hung Hom in white and orange liveried baggage vans supplied by the China Railways.

The final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong rail freight was delivered in 29 October 2009, when the MTR (successor of the KCRC after the completion of the rail merger) announced that they would exit the freight business.
The MTR justified the decision as follows:

After careful study, the Corporation has decided to wind down its freight business over the next several months to better utilize train paths currently being used for the freight business to provide greater flexibility for passenger train service, benefiting the people of Hong Kong.

Just as predicted by the KCR back in 1999 during their planning for the Port Rail Line. The last KCR freight train ran on June 15, 2010 with locomotive KCR 58 leading 13 wagons.

The 60 staff in the MTR Freight business were moved into other roles, but as of 2010 the freight yards remain disused.

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6 Responses to The demise of rail freight in Hong Kong

  1. xahldera says:

    I find it a massive shame considering that a good rail freight link could take many trucks off the roads. Even here in the UK, where railways aren’t exactly booming, the rail freight industry here has been going steadily along and the use of railways help take some traffic off our congested roads.

    • It’s disappointing to see the freight trains end, but overall the rail from Hung Hom hardly took any trucks off the road. Rail competes well with bulk movements of goods, the pig traffic is one of those, as was the containers out of Hung Hom.

      For the cargo crossing the border, today it can just be unloaded at one of the new container ports that have been built in mainland China over the past decade.

      As for traffic inside Hong Kong, the freight terminals along East Rail were very small, and the industrial districts are scattered all over the territory, so trucks were still needed to take cargo the “last mile” anyway.

  2. R Brown says:

    I was working in HK on the signaling upgrade for KCRC in the late 1990s. What you said about the pig trains and their stench is so true, it lingered particularly long in the tunnels. I also remember being on the passenger platforms when the new “time to next train” signs would say “Next train not stopping” and everyone would get as far from the platform edge as possible, and the relief they would express when that train turned out to be something else.

    • Marcus says:

      One of my local railfan friends warned me of the pig trains when I told him about my Hong Kong trip- I hate to think how long the stink lingers in the tunnels!

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