GBA Brief

At last! Hong Kong’s much-delayed bullet train finally departs

Services finally started last week on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, almost two years late. The first train left the station to a strange mix of congratulation and controversy.

About time! Hong Kong finally has a high-speed railway, connecting into thousands of miles of bullet-train network between China’s leading cities. Construction delays have been embarrassing for a city that prides itself on its engineering expertise but Hong Kong finally has express access into the Greater Bay Area, almost seven years after the Guangzhou-Shenzhen section of the line started to operate. 

The opening of the Hong Kong section was blunder-free and the first train, named Vibrant Express, departed the West Kowloon terminus at 7am on Sunday. In less than 20 minutes it had arrived in Shenzhen carrying 500 passengers, before heading onto Guangzhou, its final destination.

What does that mean for end-to-end journey times? The South China Morning Post has run its own experiment, comparing the new bullet train to the older, slower service running to Guangzhou. But the comparisons depend on where you want to end up. Because the high-speed service terminates in the east of Guangdong’s provincial capital, passengers have to add a longish taxi ride to business districts like Tianhe. The final verdict: the journey was quicker, but only by 13 minutes.

That will do little to appease the line’s critics, who are aghast at mammoth construction costs of $12 billion that came in well over budget. Opponents of the railway in Hong Kong have political grumbles as well, not least that mainland officials are working in parts of the terminus, which they see as a further sign of the city’s eroding autonomy from Beijing.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the territory enjoys autonomy over immigration and customs procedures. But the shared facility at West Kowloon is housing immigration and customs officials from mainland China. “It’s like a Trojan horse infiltrating the city through the belly of the railway system,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told the Wall Street Journal.

The counter argument is that Hong Kong needs links like these if it is going to tap into the Greater Bay Area’s full potential. The former British territory sits in the far reaches of the region, staring out over the South China Sea. To get all the benefits of clustering effect that so excite economists, it needs to be closer to the other ten cities in the north and west of the planned megalopolis. 

Of course, in a city obsessed by property, Hongkongers first concern is what the bullet train might mean for sky-high home prices. Try Googling “Greater Bay Area” or “high speed train” in Chinese and the top results are advertisements from real estate agents for residential projects in cities such as Guangzhou and Zhongshan. Perhaps that shows the way the wind is blowing – if travel times are going to fall across the region in general, why spend so much on a shoebox in Hong Kong when you can get a cheaper home nearby? 

Landlords won’t like that train of thought, but tenants and first-time buyers will be happier if property prices take a bullet.