Baggage handing on the MTR Airport Express

The most novel feature of the MTR Airport Express service linking Hong Kong and Kowloon with Hong Kong International Airport is the “In-Town Check-In” service – drop off your baggage and receive a boarding pass from the airline counter at the railway station, and you’ll be reunited with them at your final destination. But how do the bags catch the train with you?

Passengers board a train to the city at Airport station

Genesis of the system

The In-Town Check-In (ITCI) service was part of the initial plans for the Airport Railway.

The feasibility study showed that AEL ridership and revenues could be increased significantly by providing an In-Town Check-In (ITCI) service, so passengers could check-in their bags at a station and then travel unencumbered to the airport by the AEL. Studies confirmed that ITCI was feasible and could increase ridership. Unfortunately the requirement for Customs control at the airport, together with the size of any baggage reclamation facility, precluded the possibility of an In-Town Check-Out (ITCO) service.

To provide the ITCI service, the AEL train configuration was revised to include one baggage car at the end of each train, resulting in nine passenger cars and one baggage car. However, because no ITCO service could be provided on the return journey, no reduction in luggage space within the cars was possible.

Baggage security problems were resolved by introduction of a new bulk X-ray device, known as MAEDS (Mechanized Automatic Explosive Detection System) which was undergoing trials at a number of international airports. This system enables all baggage from all check-in desks to be screened in bulk in the baggage-handling hall rather than at the check-in. The great benefit is that only normal security and not ‘air side’ security is required within the MTR system. MAEDS has been adopted for some functions at the new airport and the ITCI has been planned accordingly.

Luggage trolleys are an essential feature of AEL stations. During early discussions with the Railway Inspectorate regulator for safety, it was decided that luggage trolleys could not be allowed on the trains. However, the stations have been planned to allow trolleys to be used to move luggage between platforms and carriages with full provision of lifts for those needing to change level. The ticket barriers have been designed to allow passage of passengers with trolleys and recirculation of empty trolleys away from the public.

Hong Kong station opened with 28 of 45 check-in counters, and Kowloon station with 33 of 83, allowing plenty of room for future expansion.

Moving the bags

The check-in counters at Hong Kong and Kowloon stations are located inside the paid area.

Ticket barriers outside the Kowloon station In Town Check-In desks

Baggage check-in closes 90 minutes ahead of the scheduled flight departure time – plenty of time, given the 24 minute travel time from Hong Kong station to the airport. The check in counters are just like those at the airport.

In Town Check-In counters at Kowloon station

Once checked in, bags pass along conveyor belts.

MTR photo

Where they are moved to the baggage handling area on the lower ground floor, where they are scanned by staff and loaded into baggage containers.

MTR photo

Which are then loaded onboard the baggage carriage. photo

The baggage handing section of the station is equipped with platform screen doors, just like the passenger platform.

Baggage handing room at the city end of Airport station

The baggage car being located at the Hong Kong end of each Airport Express train.

Hong Kong bound Airport Express train runs through Sunny Bay station

The five doors and lack of windows being the spotting feature.

Luggage car at the Hong Kong end of the MTR Airport Express train

13 luggage containers fit inside each carriage, sitting atop a system of transfer rollers.

Siu Ho Wan Depot 14
MTR photo

On arrival at Airport station, the train and platform doors open.

CCTV monitor looking over the baggage container handing room

And the baggage containers roll out of the train.

Unloading baggage containers at Airport station

With a CCTV system allowing the train captain to monitor the process.

The train has stopped, and the baggage containers are being moved off into the airport

The containers are sent down to the ground floor of the Ground Transportation Centre.

Diagram from The Arup Journal

Where the bags are unloaded from the containers.

Then moved via a tunnel into the terminal proper, where they enter the main airport baggage handing system.

Where they eventually end up beneath your aircraft.

Loading ULD cargo containers beneath a Dragonair jet

But what if something goes wrong

Bags are not necessarily transported on the same train as the passenger who checked them in – they take around 15 minutes to pass from check-in counter to train. Failures of the system are rare, but if they occur, the cut off time might be extended.

MTR services to Hong Kong International Airport disrupted by baggage system fault
9 December 2018
Disruption hit MTR services to Hong Kong’s airport for about an hour on Sunday, because of a fault with the baggage handling system at Airport station. Services were back to normal by 1.25pm.

The total journey time on the Airport Express from Hong Kong station to AsiaWorld-Expo station was extended by five to 10 minutes, according to an MTR Corporation announcement. In-town check-in services – which allow travellers to check in and drop bags at a station in Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island, before heading on to the airport – closed 180 minutes before flights, doubled from the usual 90 minutes.

In a statement at about 1.25pm, the corporation said: “The baggage handling system at Airport station has been repaired. Train service on the Airport Express and in-town check-in service is resumed normal.

But even a train breakdown need not delay the baggage – the MTR control centre has the option ro despatch an additional train to pickup waiting luggage and transport it to the airport, and luggage loaded onboard a failed train can be even transferred to a second train using the emergency platforms found at Sunny Bay and Nam Cheong stations.

Airport Express baggage container transfer rollers at the Sunny Bay emergency platform

A note on the containers

The baggage containers used on the Airport Express trains bear a resemblance to the ULD (unit load device) containers used onboard aircraft, except much smaller – so I think the resemblance is coincidental.

ULD container and a loose baggage dolly exit the terminal basement



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