‘End of an era’ for Hong Kong MTR’s cross-border through-train services with Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai

The first journey to a destination, how we got there, the sights, sounds and smells – they are all important parts of collective memory. Nostalgic thoughts have come flooding back for many people in Hong Kong and on the mainland China side of the border with reports that the through train to Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing has ceased operation. With a history spanning 111 years, the line was long a conduit for business, family get-togethers and tourism and instrumental in development of the eastern New Territories and neighbouring city of Shenzhen. Faster and more convenient means of travel have eroded its advantages and it is now apparently being consigned to history.

Cross-border rail services have been suspended since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, so those wishing to go for one last ride have likely missed the opportunity. In its place there is now the high-speed rail from Kowloon that cuts time to Guangzhou and the rest of the nation, buses and planes. Passenger numbers have plunged, in 2019 being down 48.2 per cent to 1.9 million. Better infrastructure coupled with a desire for convenience and time-saving travel pointed to the end of the line.

Conceived as a means of projecting British colonial power, the line that eventually ran from Tsim Sha Tsui to Guangzhou, then known as Canton, was hailed on its completion as an engineering feat. But there were long periods of interrupted service, notably during the Japanese war from 1937 to 1945 and from when the Communist Party took power in China from 1945 until an agreement to reopen the track from Lo Wu to Guangzhou was struck in 1979. During the latter period, a 275-metre walk was required to change trains.

For Hong Kong, the stretch from Hung Hom to the border was the beginning of the city’s commuter passenger network, enabling people to travel from rural districts and the new towns of the New Territories to urban areas. The track remains as part of the Mass Transit Railway’s East Line, but the trains will no longer run. There are reminders such as the red brick clock tower from the original terminus on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and the Hung Hom station building itself, but of those trips to see relatives, attend the Canton Fair or simply to be a tourist, there can now only be memories.

Rail giant, the MTR Corporation, issued a statement late on Thursday that did not confirm or deny press reports that service termination was on the cards. The Intercity Through Train, which has run between Hong Kong and three mainland cities since 1911, could be permanently stopped within a year at the earliest, sources say. It is understood that MTR Corp is hoping to call a halt to the trains, which connect Hong Kong with Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.

The rail giant will disband the passenger service department that runs the service soon and transfer staff to other departments within MTRC, multiple sources said. Some said MTRC has already stopped the regular inspection and maintenance of the two-deck KTT train carts that run on the line. The potential retirement of the Intercity Through Train, left, would mean at least one additional train trip on the East Rail Line during rush hour. SING TAO

“The train carts are already very old and the train itself is already approaching the end of its service,” a source said. “The development of the mainland’s railway network is getting better and this has made the Intercity Through Train have less of an edge. I believe it has finished its historical mission.” MTRC said it will announce in due course if there are adjustments to the service. It added: “MTRC has all along been arranging training for Intercity Through Train staff to be transferred to other positions, including in other stations, Lo Wu Station, and also the preparatory work for the East Rail Line cross-harbor extension.” It said there would be no layoff or manpower cuts.

Roundtable lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said he has heard of the possible suspension, adding the mainland is now constructing an interchange in Guangzhou for trains to change tracks, which he expects to be completed in a year. By then the 26-kilometer Express Rail Link, which started service in 2018, would be able to reach Guangzhou East Station, which is closer to urban areas, instead of only stopping at Guangzhou South Station, Tien said. He added: “According to my understanding, the Express Rail Link will go alternately to Guangzhou South and Guangzhou East and by then the Intercity Through Train service can be permanently slashed. “In terms of the local transport network, it would mean one less train per hour on the East Rail Line, which means there could be one more train in rush hour, carrying 2,000 people. Residents living along the East Rail Line will rejoice.”

A resident of Sheung Shui was happy to hear about the possible suspension of the through trains. Through trains are slower but cheaper. An Express Rail Link ticket to Guangzhou South is HK$323, while for through trains the cost to Guangzhou East is HK$250.

The Transport and Housing Bureau said it will closely monitor the pandemic situation and consider the case for resumption of cross-boundary train services. The Intercity Through Train has been temporarily suspended for two years since January 2020 due to the pandemic. Government and MTRC documents in 2019 said patronage dropped by 30 percent a year after the opening of the Express Rail Link. It takes the Express Rail Link 48 minutes to bring passengers from West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong to Guangzhou South. For that through trains need about two hours. And it takes through trains about 19 hours to reach Shanghai and 24 hours to reach Beijing.