Hong Kong’s Train to China: A Brief History of the Kowloon-Canton Railway

Photo courtesy Ronny Ma @hmasz

Born of controversy and protest, Hong Kong’s new high-speed rail link to mainland China is finally open. Every hour, seven trains from Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou pull into the vast underground terminus in West Kowloon, joined by another 13 daily trips from more far-flung places like Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai.

Passengers make their way through a building that resembles a seashell half submerged in the sand. First, they pass through a large zone that is still technically part of mainland China – a particularly contentious arrangement that saw Hong Kong cede control over a million square feet of land. After they clear Hong Kong customs and immigration, they reach the surface, where they are greeted by the full sweep of Hong Kong’s skyline rising above Victoria Harbour.

Most of them will continue to their destinations in a taxi or on the MTR. But if they took a left and continued for ten minutes down Canton Road, they would reach a handsome Edwardian clock tower with its own glorious view of the harbour. This is where the original Kowloon Station once stood: the point of departure for Hong Kong’s first great train to China.

It was a railway motivated by the great game of imperial interests. As railway engineer Tymon Mellor notes in his history of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR), it was a man named Rowland Macdonald Stephenson who first proposed building a train from “Kowloon to Calcutta” in 1864, linking Britain’s Chinese outpost with the crown jewel of its imperial possessions. Stephenson had been responsible for laying rails across the Indian subcontinent, and he had similar ambitions for China, but he was thwarted by the Chinese government, which had little interest in building a nationwide rail network.

That left Hong Kong and its British rulers in a bind. An American company was laying out plans for a railway from Beijing to Guangzhou, via Wuhan, and a Russian-backed Belgian company set to work on a rival Beijing-Wuhan line. France was reportedly looking to shore up its influence in Guangzhou by investing in a railway, too. Britain felt like its sway in southern China was in jeopardy, so in 1899, Hong Kong-based conglomerate Jardine Matheson partnered with the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank to create the British and Chinese Corporation, which won the right to build a railway from Kowloon to Guangzhou, then known as Canton.

Work on the railway stalled for years as the corporation sought funding. In 1904, the Colonial Office in London suggested that the Hong Kong government pay for the section of the railway that would run through its territory, and the following year, a bill to fund the project was pushed through Hong Kong’s legislature at extraordinary speed. Mellor describes the funding scheme as “complicated” and remarks that, by receiving all three readings in one day, the bill to approve it made “constitutional history.”

In 1908, then-governor Frederick Lugard justified the urgency by describing the railway as “a question of preserving the predominance of Hong Kong.” If a rival railway connected Guangzhou to another deep water port, it would be an economic catastrophe for Hong Kong, whose entire reason for being was as an intermediary between the river ports of the Pearl River and the rest of the world. If the KCR weren’t built, he argued, Hong Kong would be doomed.

Kowloon Canton Railway map in 1915

Officials considered two potential routes. Both began in Tsim Sha Tsui, with one heading west along the Rambler Channel, past Castle Peak Bay and up into Yuen Long before crossing into Shenzhen. A 1905 survey notes that this route would cut through farms growing pineapples, rice, sugarcane, peanuts and sweet potatoes, with stations in the market towns of Tsuen Wan, San Hui and Yuen Long, along with one in the “thickly populated and fertile valley of Pat Heung.” Its biggest challenge would be following the rocky shores west of Tsuen Wan, where the railway would be in danger of flooding by rough seas.

The other route would pass along the east side of the Kowloon peninsula before tunnelling through Beacon Hill, after which it ran alongside Tide Cove and the Tolo Harbour before barrelling straight through the fields of Fanling. Despite the need for a tunnel, this route would be cheaper and less complicated to build, and the 1905 survey suggests that a station in Tai Po would be particularly busy, thanks to its bustling market and port. The report even envisioned a suburb for the colonial elite: “There are plenty of fine building sites on crown lands [in Tai Po] suitable for villa residences and bungalows within easy reach of the station.”

The eastern route was chosen in the end. Construction took five years and cost a fortune by the standards of the time: about HK$12.2 million, well over double the estimated cost of HK$5 million. That was nearly five times the cost per mile of the railway’s Chinese section and 20 times the cost of railways built in northern China. There is no doubt the railway was dealing with difficult terrain, but ballooning debt and staff salaries accounted for much of the expense.

There was a labour shortage, too. Many of the 5,000 workers who built the line were imported from northern China, and they found Hong Kong’s climate unbearably hot and humid. More than a third of them came down with malaria, but when workers were prescribed quinine to prevent the disease, many of them sold it to local shops. At least 96 workers died during construction, mostly because of disease.

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Sham Chun (Shenzhen) Station in 1910, just before completion of the Hong Kong portion of the KCR

The railway finally opened on October 1, 1910 – but without a proper terminus. It took another six years to reclaim land and built Kowloon Station on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. The station had a heavy colonnaded façade, above which soared the clock tower, beckoning travellers from across the harbour. Service was slow at first, with only a few trains per day, and it was sometimes suspended due to political upheaval, economic malaise and general lawlessness in China. By the 1920s, only half the passengers on the railway were headed to the mainland, with the rest taking the train to stations in Hong Kong. In 1931, a new casino in Shenzhen helped drive cross-border traffic, but it closed in 1936. Not long after, Japan invaded China, plunging the country into ever deeper chaos.

Hong Kong was spared Japanese occupation until 1941, when the Battle of Hong Kong raged right up to the walls of Kowloon Station; you can still see bullet holes in the clock tower’s façade. During the occupation, the Japanese managed to keep the railway running, but just barely. By the time the British returned to Hong Kong in 1945, it needed a major overhaul. British factories got to work building 12 new steam locomotives that were shipped to Hong Kong.

Thanks to a coal shortage, it was a struggle to keep the railway running – and yet it had never been more successful. Hong Kong’s population had dwindled from 1.6 million in 1941 to 600,000 in 1945, and after the war ended, everyone who had left came flooding back – and then some more than 100,000 people were surging into Hong Kong every month and most of them arrived by train.

The cross-border rush was stymied on October 14, 1949, the day before Communist forces took control of Guangzhou. Through-train services were halted and anyone travelling to the mainland had to disembark at Lo Wu and walk across the bridge to Shenzhen. For the next 30 years, the KCR operated purely as a local commuter service. Far from declining, however, the railway continued to grow in popularity as Hong Kong’s population boomed and more and more people moved into the New Territories.

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Passengers walking across the railway bridge to Shenzhen in 1980

Service wasn’t frequent, however. In 1953, there were 32 daily trips along the KCR’s single-track railway. When retired restaurant owner Liu Ping-yuen was growing up in the Sha Tin village of Tin Sam in the 1950s, he played barefoot on the railway tracks. “I put soda bottle caps on the rail and waited for the trains to press them into flat coins,” he recalls. Later, when he got a job at as a car mechanic’s shop in Kowloon, he began commuting into the city every day by train, carrying a leather case with two sets of clothes and a pair of wooden clogs. “Back then, most people in the countryside walked barefoot and wearing clogs was considered to be a real status symbol,” he says. “When I got to the city, I felt like I was so backwards compared to how the city people lived.”

But the gulf between rural and urban was changing even as Liu walked shoeless around his village. In the 1960s, villagers displaced by the Plover Cove Reservoir were resettled in Tai Po Market, expanding the size of the old market town. That decade also saw the construction of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, just west of where the railway curved around the mouth of Tolo Harbour. Then, in the early 1970s, Tai Po and Sha Tin were transformed into high-rise commuter towns, and Fo Tan developed into a high-density industrial area.

Despite all this new development, there were just 17 passenger trains in the KCR’s fleet. (Another five hauled cargo, including live pigs, earning that particularly odorous passage the nickname “Fragrance Express.”) The old carriages were so overcrowded, people boarded and disembarked through open windows; whenever a train called at a station its platforms were instantly overwhelmed by passengers. The government’s response was to install a double track up to Sha Tin and to move the end of the line from Tsim Sha Tsui to Hung Hom. Norman Foster’s then-fledgling architecture firm designed a new terminus that opened in 1975. Three years later, despite loud public opposition, the original Kowloon Station was demolished, with only the clock tower spared.

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Kowloon Station in 1914, shortly after its completion.

The improvements still weren’t enough. So in 1980, work began to double-track and electrify the entire KCR line. Stations were rebuilt and a new fleet of metro-style trains were built in the UK and shipped to Hong Kong. When the modernisation was completed in 1982, the frequency of rail service increased from every half hour to every five minutes. Ridership exploded from 50,000 daily passengers in 1980 to just under 500,000 a decade later.

As the New Territories continued to develop, plans were drawn up to expand the KCR with new lines to Ma On Shan in the east and Tuen Mun in the west. The KCR was also tasked with building a light rail system in the western New Territories, which opened in 1984. Hong Kong ended up with two complementary metro systems: the KCR in the New Territories and the MTR in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Although it was now indistinguishable from any other rapid transit system, the KCR’s origins as an intercity railway were revealed in the way people referred to it in Cantonese: as the fo2 ce1 (火車), or “railway.” The MTR, by contrast, is the dei6 tit3 (地鐵) – “metro.”

The official distinction ended in 2007, when the KCR was folded into the MTR. The latter company took over the through-train services to Guangzhou, as well as responsibility for the new Express Rail link, which connects the new West Kowloon terminus to China’s sprawling high-speed rail network.

When the Express Rail was first proposed in 2009, it was greeted by protesters who called it a white elephant being pushed forward by political interests – namely China’s desire to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. They were also incensed that an entire village, Choi Yuen, would need to be demolished to make way for an emergency station along the line. In a scene that echoed the hasty approval of the KCR in 1905, the Express Rail was quickly pushed through the legislature. And just like the KCR, its construction was vastly over budget (about HK$20 billion more than the initially touted $79 billion) and plagued by difficulties. Its initial ridership even echoes the disappointing numbers of the KCR’s early days.

There’s one more similarity. In the beginning, the KCR wasn’t necessarily built to serve Hong Kong people; it was a strategic ploy to safeguard British interests in a China being fought over by competing Western powers. The Express Rail plays a similar role in tying Hong Kong into a newly powerful China – both physically and symbolically.

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A new electric train rolls into the revamped Kowloon Tong station in 1983

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