When you take the MTR to Yuen Long and emerge onto Castle Peak Road, it can feel like you’re in some kind of parallel universe version of Hong Kong. The crowds are reminiscent of Mongkok, and so is the neon, or what’s left of it. There are street hawkers and clusters of outdoor restaurants, like the ones that were common throughout the urban areas before they were swept away by regulatory changes. And there are trams, just like on Hong Kong Island. But this isn’t the famous ding ding. This is the light rail.
Nearly 500,000 people ride the light rail every day, more than two and a half times the daily ridership of the tram. Its jaunty bells can be heard throughout the northwestern New Territories, with more than 36 kilometres of tracks serving Yuen Long, Tuen Mun and points in between. And yet it doesn’t inspire nearly as much admiration as its historic double-decker cousin. In fact, it may well be Hong Kong’s least-loved form of public transport. When public policy scholar Rikki Yeung wrote a book about the city’s railways, Moving Millions, “The Unpopular Light Rail” is how she titled a section about its history.
But it deserves more respect than it gets. The light rail’s 12 routes and 68 stations are an essential service for the 1.1 million people who live in Yuen Long and Tuen Mun districts. And for outsiders, the system is a window into a part of Hong Kong that even many lifelong Hongkongers are unfamiliar with. Bustling markets, historic landmarks, wetlands, mountains, beaches – the light rail trundles past all of them.
It has done so since September 1988, when the first section of the system opened with four days of free rides between Tuen Mun and Yuen Long. But planning for the light rail began nearly a decade earlier. In the 1970s, the colonial government designated Tuen Mun—then known in English as Castle Peak, referring to the nearby mountain—as a new town, one of the suburban enclaves meant to accommodate Hong Kong’s ballooning population. Tuen Mun was far more remote than other new towns. Unlike Sha Tin, it did not have the benefit of an existing railway like the KCR, nor did it benefit from Tsuen Wan’s proximity to Kowloon, which gave it easy access to the newly-built MTR. Government planners set aside space for a railway, but only to Yuen Long, a more established market town to the north. The hope was that the northwestern New Territories would become self-sufficient enough to minimise links to the rest of Hong Kong.
There was just one problem: nobody seemed interested in building the railway. In 1982, Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf, which owned Hongkong Tramways, offered to run double-decker trams through the new suburb, but it backed off when the government insisted on charging HK$280 million—about $1.2 billion in today’s money—in land premiums for property developments along the tram line. (It wasn’t the first time the tram company had lost an opportunity to expand beyond Hong Kong Island.) The MTR wasn’t up for the task, either, as it was saddled with debt after building its first line from Kwun Tong to Central, with new lines under construction to Tsuen Wan and on Hong Kong Island.
That left the KCR, which had operated as a government department until 1982, when it was spun off as a corporation that managed the newly electrified railway through Sha Tin. Though owned by the government, the KCR was independent in its operations, and in exchange for taking on the Tuen Mun rail project, it demanded lucrative property development rights, loan guarantees, and a near-monopoly on public transport in the northwestern New Territories, forcing bus company KMB to shut down many of the routes it had been operating. With this shrewdly negotiated deal in place, construction began on the light rail in 1985.
It was unpopular from the very beginning. Many residents of Tuen Mun and Yuen Long were satisfied with the existing bus services, and wanted the government to invest in a commuter train to Tsuen Wan instead of a local light rail system. More than 10,000 signed a petition demanding the Legislative Council scrap the project. As is usually the case in Hong Kong, the government pressed on regardless.
Why wasn’t a commuter train on the cards? Part of the answer was cost, because tunnelling through the mountains that separate the northwestern New Territories from Tsuen Wan and Kowloon would have been particularly expensive. But there was also the allure of light rail itself. The concept emerged in the 1970s as a way to promote a new kind of transport that was a hybrid between a tramway and metro system with a separate right-of-way. It avoided the stigma of traditional trams, which ran in mixed traffic and were prone to delays, while using smaller railcars and surface routes that were far cheaper to build than a heavy rail system like the MTR.
Today, many traditional tram networks have gone through enough improvements that the distinction between a tramway and light rail is blurry. But light rail was nothing if not fashionable in the 1970s and 80s. Two dozen light rail systems were built in those decades, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, where many cities had dismantled their tram systems in favour of buses, only to find themselves in need of a higher-capacity form of public transport. Hong Kong’s light rail was the first in Asia; the territory’s colonial-era planners were no doubt influenced by what was going on back home in the UK.
Many of those overseas systems were greeted enthusiastically when they opened. But the Hong Kong public was still grumpy about the light rail, and the situation wasn’t helped by a string of highly publicised incidents in 1988. At least ten people were injured by accidents during test runs, including two derailments and a crash between two rail cars. Drivers unfamiliar with surface rail crossings had a tendency to stray into the path of oncoming trains, and two people died from collisions with the light rail in its first year of operation.
It also wasn’t doing well as hoped. Ridership in the first year was just a third of the projected number, leading to major losses for the KCR. A big part of the problem was that Tuen Mun and Yuen Long were not nearly as self-sufficient as town planners had hoped. Although both towns had attracted many industrial businesses, most residents still needed to commute to the urban areas for work, and so they had little use for the light rail. The government ended the KCR’s quasi-monopoly in 1993, allowing the KMB and minibus companies to operate in the northwestern New Territories. Three years later, the KCR began working on what eventually became the West Rail, a new metro line that would connect Tuen Mun and Yuen Long with Kowloon – exactly what many residents had been asking for all along.
Still, as the northwest New Territories grew in population, the light rail grew with it, nearly doubling in length to serve Tin Shui Wai, a new town built in the 1990s. By 1995, the system was busy to the point of being overcrowded. “I’ve seen people fighting to get on the train in a brutal manner and children being pushed onto the train before parents throw in their school bags,” complained one aggrieved straphanger in the South China Morning Post. The KCR began widening platforms and boosting frequencies in response.
While the light rail has never captured the hearts and minds of Hongkongers the way the Hong Kong Island tram has done, there’s still time for that to happen – especially as the northwestern New Territories continues to quickly develop, drawing people from the urban areas as well as newcomers from mainland China. For now, a light rail ticket—which is still based on the honour system, just like it was when the system first opened—is a ticket to a side of Hong Kong that deserves more attention.
Routes 705 and 706 take you to the Hong Kong Wetland Park, where the towers of nearby Shenzhen rise like a mirage over a haven of biodiversity. Routes 610, 614, 615 and 761P deposit you at the entrance of Ping Shan, a collection of historic villages home to the ancient Tang clan. An easy walk will take you past an old police station-turned-museum, stone ancestral halls and a 600-year-old pagoda. When you pass the surprisingly elegant Ping Shan Tin Shui Wai Public Library, which has outdoor reading rooms and huge windows overlooking a feng shui pond, you will soon reach the Tin Shui Wai MTR station, where another four light rail routes promise to whisk you away.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface. From Tin Shui Wai, route 751 brings you to the bustling main street of Lam Tei, where shops spill out of tin-roofed shacks, with the strange reverse-pyramid structure of the Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery looming to the north. From there, route 615 will take you to Ching Chung Koon, an ornate temple with an extravagantly landscaped garden. Keep going on the same train and you’ll end up at the Tuen Mun Ferry Pier. Turn right and a laconic promenade lined by al fresco cafés will take you to Butterfly Beach, shaded by horsetail trees, whose fine sands feel far away indeed from the rest of Hong Kong.