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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the Hong Kong railways

By Annette Chan 21 July 2021 | Last Updated 30 December 2022

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a world city renowned for its urbanity and modernity, it’s hard to conceive of a time in Hong Kong before the MTR, much less any form of rail transport. While the MTR Corporation now operates the vast majority of Hong Kong’s rail lines—except the Peak Tram and Hong Kong Tramways—this was not always the case.

While we take its smooth operation and convenient stations for granted, Hong Kong’s public railway system has endured a lot of changes, obstacles, and growing pains in its 110-year history. From wars to construction difficulties, financing troubles, and even a potential train to India, here’s the story of how Hong Kong’s railway system came to be.

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KCR train in Tsim Sha Tsui, circa 1916. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Its initial development was rejected

The idea to have a railway system connecting Hong Kong with mainland China was first proposed to the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce by Sir Rowland MacDonald Stephenson, a British railway engineer. 

Stephenson—who spearheaded the construction of the East India Railway Company—proposed a route connecting Calcutta (Kolkata), Canton (Guangdong), and Hong Kong in 1864. Perhaps because he was ahead of his time, or because Hong Kong’s powerful shipping companies wished to maintain their monopoly on freight and passenger services to the mainland, the idea was rejected.

However, it was reignited towards the end of the nineteenth century, when other Western countries—France, Belgium, America—began proposing railways of their own to the Chinese government. To “preserv[e] the predominance of Hong Kong,” as future Governor of Hong Kong Sir Frederick Lugard would later put it, the British took concrete action. The British & Chinese Corporation (BCC)—founded by Jardine, Matheson and Co. and HSBC—struck an agreement with the Imperial Chinese Railway Administration in 1899 to build the Canton Kowloon Railway, as it was then called.

Opening of Lo Wu Station in 1910. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Delayed by warfare

However, it was not all smooth sailing from there. Financing and development hit a speed bump due to political conflicts—namely, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Boer War in South Africa. After years of delay, the Hong Kong Government, BCC, and the Colonial Office in London came to an agreement in 1904 that the Hong Kong Government would finance, build, and operate “the British section” of the railway.

After detailed surveying, a “high-level eastern route via Tide Cove (Sha Tin)” was determined to be the most suitable and direct option, and construction between the neighbourhoods of Tai Po Market and Fanling began in late 1905. Construction was hampered by a number of factors—changes in design, difficulties excavating Beacon Hill, labour shortage, and the depreciation of the Hong Kong dollar.

Original Kowloon Station in Tsim Sha Tsui, circa 1914. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Finally on track

Finally, the Kowloon–Canton Railway was officially opened on 1 October 1910, comprising a single-track system of eight stations (some temporary), five tunnels, and 48 bridges spanning more than 35 kilometres. Despite its ups and downs, the line was seen as a formidable engineering achievement upon its debut.

Although traffic was slow to begin with, the railway grew in popularity after “the Chinese section” opened in 1911, and offered passengers the ability to travel from Kowloon to Guangdong in under four hours. In 1936, the KCR railcar “Tai Po Belle” set a record with a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute non-stop journey from Kowloon to Guangdong. Interestingly, the Kowloon Station terminus—whose iconic red-brick clock tower still stands in Tsim Sha Tsui to this day—would not open until 1916, due to difficulties encountered in finding a suitable location.

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A train departs from the original Kowloon Station in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Trials and tribulations

During the Second World War, the KCR line fell into disrepair. British forces deliberately destroyed bridges and tunnels in their defence of Hong Kong against the Japanese invasion in December 1941. While the damage was later repaired enough for the Japanese army to use the railway during the three years and eight months that Japan occupied Hong Kong, there was little to no maintenance. Additionally, rolling stock and equipment were continually dismantled and sent to China to be used by the Japanese, resulting in the need for a total restoration after the occupation ended.

A northbound KCRC train approaches the former Tai Po Market Railway Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Harder, better, faster, stronger

As Hong Kong’s population grew during the Chinese Civil War, the railway was in dire need of improvement. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the long-standing steam locomotives were gradually replaced with diesel trains to save on operational costs. However, by the 1970s, the government’s plans to accommodate Hong Kong’s economic boom, which included building new towns in Sha Tin, Tai Po, Sheung Shui, and Fanling, necessitated major expansion and improvement works.

As part of a 10-year investment programme, the entirety of the KCR from Hung Hom to Lo Wu was electrified, and a second track was built to accommodate the growing traffic. In the following decades, the KCR continued to grow and become increasingly modern, with metro-esque train cars, more frequent service, and the addition of new lines—the KCR Light Rail in 1988, the KCR West Rail line in 2003, and the KCR Ma On Shan line in 2004. The original “British section” was also renamed KCR East Rail line.

A map of the MTR’s “Modified Initial System” route from 1978. Photo: Stand News

The birth of the MTR

Meanwhile, the government began looking for a new transport solution to supplement the railway and accommodate Hong Kong’s unprecedented growth. In 1966, it enlisted British transportation consultants Freeman, Fox, Wilbur Smith, and Associates, who recommended constructing a 64-kilometre rapid transit rail system (or “mass transit railway”) with four lines based on the projected population growth.

The exact alignment would take many different shapes over the following years to reflect changes in population estimates and town planning, but in 1975, the government finally settled on a 15.6-kilometre “Modified Initial System,” which would cover part of today’s Kwun Tong line, Tsuen Wan line, and Island line.

After four years of construction, the Modified Initial System opened in three phases throughout 1979. The first batch of drivers was trained on the London Underground, and the full system—spanning 15 stations from Admiralty to Kwun Tong—was officially opened in February 1980 by Princess Alexandra, who rode the first train through the immersed tube under Victoria Harbour.

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Mass Transit Railway “Preferred System” route map from 1970. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Over the last four decades, the MTR has expanded and extended its network beyond those initial 15 stations to include new lines, stations, and services, including but not limited to Ngong Ping 360, Airport Express, and the now-ubiquitous Octopus card.

While the Mass Transit Railway Corporation originally began as a statutory corporation, the company became a publicly listed and partially privatised company in 2000, with the government remaining its majority shareholder. As such, the MTR Corporation (as it is now officially named) has the freedom to develop and manage properties that seamlessly connect with its transportation services—like shopping malls and fully-fledged housing estates—becoming an integral part of Hong Kong’s very urban fabric.

KCR and MTR merged in 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A marriage of convenience

In the early 2000s, the government—which owned both the Kowloon–Canton Railway Corporation and the MTR Corporation—began discussing a merger of the two networks. In 2007, the KCR network was officially integrated into MTR’s network and its operations were leased to the MTRC for 50 years.

Nowadays, the MTR operates over a wide-ranging railway network spanning over 260 kilometres, with new stations and lines under development. In 2021, the Tuen Ma line—an amalgamation of the old KCR Ma On Shan line and KCR West Rail line—debuted as the longest MTR line in Hong Kong, with 27 stations spanning 57 kilometres. In May 2022, the long-awaited cross-harbour section of the East Rail line will commence service.

While the railway network has seen many changes throughout its 110-year history, its importance in the daily lives of Hongkongers and the development of Hong Kong as a whole has remained. Though the East Rail of today may be a far cry from its original single-track railway with steam-hauled locomotives, you can still get a glimpse of the old KCR at the Hong Kong Railway Museum, housed in the old Tai Po Market station, a beautiful structure designed in the style of Southern Chinese temples.

As for the future, the company has plans to expand to all corners of Hong Kong, from the Southern District to the northern New Territories, east Kowloon, and Lantau Island. While these developments will help bring all those far-flung hikes and day trips closer, what fate does it spell for much-beloved heritage modes of transport, like the minibus or double-decker bus, or the local residents in these areas?

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Annette Chan

Senior editor

Annette is an editor and copywriter with a lifetime of experience in hunting out the most interesting, odd, and delightful things about her beloved home city. Having written extensively about everything from food and culture to fashion, music, and hospitality, she considers her speciality to be Hong Kong itself. In her free time, you can find Annette trying out new dumpling recipes or playing Big Two at her favourite local bars with a cocktail in hand.