Work on the 26-km-long Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL) is well under way, with the last contract to be awarded in 2011. The Legislative Council recently approved $8.6 billion in funds for construction—a controversial increase from the original $5.1 billion.

Already $486 million worth of civil-works contracts have been awarded, with the largest being a $216-million contract to Japanese firm Penta-Ocean Construction Co., Ltd. for construction of the Mai Po to Ngau Tam Mei tunnels at the north end of the line. The other contracts were awarded to local firms Hsin Chong Construction Co. Ltd., Vibro-Chun Wo Joint Venture and Paul Y. Construction Co. The U.K.’s Bachy Soletanche Group Ltd. secured two contracts for diaphragm-wall works.

Invitations to tender for all but one of the seven tunnel contracts have been issued and the last contract award is expected to be made in August 2010. Construction of the West Kowloon terminus has been split into nine contracts for piling, station, architectural finishes, approach tunnels and initial property works. The bidding process will continue through March 2011 for the architectural finishing works, with a contract to be awarded in October of that year.

The XRL, completely underground, is set to become the fifth-longest tunnel in the world, according to MTR Corp., the government-formed corporation running the project. It anticipates 15 km of tunnels to be excavated by drill-and-blast, 10 km by mixed-ground tunnel-boring machine and about 2 km by cut-and-cover. The route will connect West Kowloon in Hong Kong to Shibi in Guangzhou, with intermediate stations in Futian and Longhua in Shenzhen and Humen in Dongguan. It will be part of a national high-speed-rail network that now covers more than 3,300 km, a figure the Chinese government’s Ministry of Railways wants to increase to 16,000 km by 2020.

One of the key challenges is expected to be construction of the 25-m-deep West Kowloon terminus on a 140,000-sq-m site. The four-level station will have 15 platforms linking the high-speed rail network with local rail services. Its excavation is expected to yield 4.5 million cu m of spoil and its construction will require about 1 million cu m of concrete. The terminus will be built next to the Airport Express Kowloon Station and the West Kowloon Station of the Kowloon Southern Link, making West Kowloon a major rail hub.

Originally estimated to cost $5.1 billion when it was approved by the Executive Council in April 2008, the new estimate—and the need to raze a village in the New Territories to make way for a rescue station and railway sidings—turned the project into a subject of protest and controversy. The funding approval was obtained only on the third try.

Citing the monetary and social costs of the approved alignment, engineers affiliated with an independent group called the Professional Commons proposed an alternative that they claimed would cost only $3.2 billion. Instead of West Kowloon, the alternative alignment would have an XRL terminus built on Kam Sheung Road in the New Territories, from which a link with the existing Airport Express would carry passengers to Hong Kong Island or the Kowloon peninsula.

However, the group’s cost estimate has been challenged by the government. A task force set up by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers to study both proposals concluded that “there are general deficiencies in the [alternative option] in terms of railway systems, less realization of strategic values, as well as uncertain land implications.”

The Hong Kong section will run at a modest speed of 200 km per hour due to its relatively short length. Completion is scheduled for 2015. It is expected to carry about 100,000 passengers daily by 2020 and 120,000 passengers by 2030.