In Between the Lines — West Rail Line/Kam Sheung Road

In Between the Lines is my wandering journey through each and every line of Hong Kong’s efficient MTR system, as well as a reflection on their place in a network I love.

2003 — WEST RAIL LINE/Kam Sheung Road
Commenced operations: 20 December 2003
Merged into new line: 27 June 2021
Stations before merger: 12 (8 unique)
Colour on map: magenta

The train speeds through the tunnel. We are aware of nothing but the grimace of commuters reflected in their screens and in the windows, and the pitch black that lies beyond the grimy glass panes. Then suddenly a sound like a whip — a flash of light — and we are speeding through the New Territories countryside, lush trees and majestic hills crowding around the track. And of course, a great big train depot to our left: not just carriages littered here and there, but full-length trains that seem to go on forever.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we take flight. The gravel lining the ground falls away, the floor seems to rise beneath our feet. From our vantage point up high, we can see a few village houses dotting the landscape here and there. Then a second abrupt change: the voice of Cherie Chan breaks through the rumble of the passengers’ mutterings, announcing our imminent arrival at a station. We look at our watches — barely six minutes have elapsed since we left the underground caverns of Mei Foo and Tsuen Wan West, stations crowded with city folk, and yet here we are in the middle of the country. This structure looming up ahead of us looks incongruous, an island of modernity in the middle of rustic sparseness. And yet this is also a station: one that we must now get out at, seeing as how it stands out amongst its surroundings so much.

Kam Sheung Road is the only station on the network with the word “Road” in its name. This was purely out of necessity: the original idea was to name it the neighbouring village of Kam Tin, but then the people of Pat Heung — which is quite some distance away from the station — got jealous and decided that they, too, should have equal naming rights. (I’ve heard of actors fighting over billing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a village fighting over a station name out of pure spite.) After trying and failing to come up with a compromise, the people building the line gave up in frustration and named it after a road… that was also half a mile away. But the villagers of Pat Heung had what they’d wanted. They’d dragged down a rival village with them.

These days, Kam Sheung Road doesn’t seem that far away — even on our approach to the station, we can already see the horde of cars cluttering up the carpark (if we’re there during the weekend, of course). But it’s still a construction in the middle of nowhere, serving a relatively disparate community, and you have to wonder: what did the authorities see in this place that made them place a station here? And almost twenty years after the original opening, perhaps we’re also in a position to ask: how does/did the West Rail line (WRL), so newly demised, fit into the MTR network as a whole?

First things first: the MTR didn’t build this. Overseas readers (hello, whoever you are) might not be aware of this, but Hong Kong actually has two railway companies: in the 1980s, when the Mass Transit Railway was still figuring out what it could do to expand, the government spun off the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR), which ran from Kowloon to the Mainland, into its own company. I’ll get into more detail about the ramifications of that action in a couple of months, but when it was decided that the people in the western New Territories also deserved a railway service of their own, the government decided that it could do with a bit of competition and threw the tender wide open. There was a bit of sparring, a few test bridges were built, the government decided in favour of the newer company — and suddenly, after almost 90 years of minding its own business, the KCR suddenly found itself in possession of a franchise.

Which was also when they discovered they had absolutely no idea how to build one. The original Kowloon-Canton Railway was a simple affair: build a line that hugs the coast of the eastern New Territories, stop at a few villages and towns along the way, make sure everyone gets to the Mainland safe and sound. Everything since then had been built around the railway. Here it was the other way round — they had to somehow build a railway through the dense streets of Kowloon, and then plot a path, any path, through the non-linear communities of the western New Territories. In short, they had to build it all from scratch.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Please note that this line no longer exists.

Looking at the map now, nobody would accuse the KCR planners of having done their best. For some reason known only to the architects, they decided that the best place to put the city terminus would be in Nam Cheong, a place awkwardly placed between two Tung Chung line stations. Changing there would be long and cumbersome — and that’s if anybody even bothered to head to this place. The same happened when they built the line into the western NTs: the first port of call was this place. The railways of Hong Kong had put stations in some remote places in the past, but they’d never gotten so close to the middle of nowhere as this.

I took the line with my father a couple of days after it opened in December 2003 — I was already a railway buff back then — and while doing so insisted that we get off at every stop just for a look-around. This was our first port of call, and I remember being HUGELY impressed by just how spacious and far-flung this station was. There was almost nobody on the platforms, which were huge and unknowable to my tenderly untrained eyes. We went down and out into the chilly late-afternoon air, my dad worriedly eyeing our freefalling Octopus card values, and I could see nothing but a huge, empty carpark — and beyond that, just hills, unspoilt countryside stretching as far as the eye can see. (There were probably some village houses in the distance, but what kind of six-year-old pays attention to that kind of thing?)

We stayed there for as long as my ADHD brain would tolerate, which back then was probably 30 seconds, before heading further down the line to more built-up areas. But I kept that image of Kam Sheung Road station for the next seventeen-and-a-half years: rural, desolate, only for those who were rich or hermetic (or the hermetic rich). More importantly, it was the type of place that nobody would get out at. In those intervening years, not once did I go near the station except on a passing bus, and when that happened, I always had my head in a book. So I hadn’t gotten out at Kam Sheung Road again until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to make this my next station of discussion.

Standing on the platform, looking at the platforms lit by the late-afternoon sunshine. I wonder how much I missed that day. Kam Sheung Road today looks nothing like the station I kept in my memories: for a start, there are actual people milling about on the platforms. It’s not exactly the wild wild west of my childhood, and none of the people sitting on the benches look wealthy or haggard. This is as much a slice of society as you might find in any other station: kids getting off from school, domestic helpers minding their charges, your average commuter wearing T-shirts and shorts. There are a few more persons of ethnic minorities — Kam Tin is home to quite a few immigrants — but overall it’s nothing out of the ordinary. (Perhaps after sitting a while, after departing on another train or bus, even, you realise that the platform was unusually quiet: everyone there was on their ones and twosomes, the chatter usually found on MTR platforms gone without a trace. But still, this is just an unusually silent crowd.)

Downstairs, too, the gap between memory and reality continues to widen. While the environs around are still as lush and green, nowhere can you see totally unspoilt wilderness like that which exists in my mind. Even the loneliest exit (D, which still contains a post box) gives you a view of a couple of village houses and a few construction cranes — and of course, the heavy-duty fencing that surrounds the site. Walking out around that side of the station, all you can hear is construction noise, all you can smell the musty sweat and sand curdling up from the immensity of the work being done. The promised idyllic world of Kam Tin seems like a world away. Same goes when you cross the concourse, pass the huge glass panels that mark this station as a pastiche of the Tung Chung line ones, and head out into the eastern flank (or “exits B and C” as they’re more commonly known). Here the development’s more acutely underway: high-rise apartment blocks in the distance, a massive pedestrian bridge heading across the river to the houses beyond, and of course the huge park and ride that sits in the front yard. In short, it looks like another of the MTR’s success stories, where an area of sparseness will gave way to a boomtown.

But there’s a difference between this place and, say, Diamond Hill. When that was built, a quarter of a century before Kam Sheung Road, it was already earmarked for prosperity: it was supposed to be a transport hub, a shopping district, a new place for the people of Kowloon East to go. Here, though, the appeal is less obvious: it’s miles from Yuen Long town centre, where entertainment is aplenty anyway; the roads here are few and winding, which means people can’t really get here even if they wanted to — and then there’s the small matter of patronage. Most people who live here are either rich enough to have cars or use long-established bus/minibus routes that take them back to their front door; a metro station so far away from the two villages it’s supposed to serve then appears vastly inferior. Yes, the park-and-ride outside is packed most of the time, but that’s basically it. Most of the time, this station is still quiet, echoey.

So: Kam Sheung Road is not a “useful” station. It does not draw crowds most of the time. It is therefore very easy to conclude that the KCR were out of their minds when they built this station — and they might indeed have been. (The MTR does not announce ridership numbers, but Chinese Wikipedia assures me that the figures for Kam Sheung Road back then were, and I quote, “practically nil”.) In the eighteen years it’s been in operation, nobody has used it to prove that the WRL was a smashing success. And yet: I feel there’s more to this story. Despite its rampant awkwardness, there is a certain aloof charm about this station that stops me from ending it here. Perhaps it’s the antiquated tiling: built in 2003, it carries the air of a station built in the 1960s, and is easily the weariest of the network’s stations. Perhaps it’s the absolute contrast that I touched upon in the opening paragraph: one moment you’re in the city, the next you’re in complete countryside.

Or maybe it’s just the magic of intimacy. There’s still a hint of the rural charm that pervades a lot of the villages here in the New Territories here: on weekends, the network’s only flea market opens in the forecourt, and while it sells nothing but (in the words of a friend who lives nearby) “snacks and clothes and potted plants” something has to be said for the warmth that comes from wandering about the passages, from a community setting up shop, from people just interacting with one another. It’s a kind of lifestyle which you don’t see a lot in urban Hong Kong: even in the markets of Sham Shui Po, business is always conducted at a frantic pace, shopkeepers and customers running to and from one another as if their lives depend on their turnover speeds. There, modern life beckons.

And so too does it beckon here. As the fencing and the cranes show, Kam Sheung Road is going the same way as all MTR properties go: housing developments, transport interchanges. There’s already talk of connecting this place with the East Rail Line at Sheung Shui, a dozen kilometres to the north: Kam Sheung Road, like Diamond Hill and Admiralty before it, will then become a transport hub. So while nothing on the scale of the MTR’s relentless appetite for development has happened here yet, I can totally see this place turning into an annex of Yuen Long in the next couple of decades: gargantuan shopping malls, tourists crowding the streets, and so on. But that change isn’t upon Kam Sheung Road yet: for now it remains a sleepy little station, slowly awakening to the rush of city life. It’s a transformation happening in slow motion.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where Kam Sheung Road becomes a microcosm of the West Rail Line. Communities had existed in the western New Territories for centuries, and development had continued with the new towns in the 1970s. Yet it wasn’t until this line started taking city-dwellers en masse into a place previously thought of as a wasteland that the dollar signs became blindingly apparent to the developers. Twenty years ago, there weren’t any huge, modern shopping malls here in western NT — there were shopping malls, but they all looked like your average neighbourhood mall, all stationary stores and mid-size restaurants, rather than big glassy affairs full of international brands. Nowadays, everyone’s jostling for position, eager to provide ever more consumerist possibilities, to exchange the old for the new. Sometimes the old and the new even sit side by side, the former quietly waiting its inevitable usurpation by the latter. I’m not trying to set up a dichotomy where “the old welcomes and the new alienates” here — the two are not mutually exclusive — but this is the only line that offers that transformation in its beginning stages, that offers a full-blooded version of “before”. And as us citizens know only too well these days, you learn to treasure these old ways of living while they last.

Modern life, however, marches on. As I write these words the West Rail line is no more, sucked into ambitious plans to create a line that traverses the breadth of the city, metamorphosed beyond its original nine stations to become part of a larger whole. And it’s still going: plans to extend it, build new stations and new tower blocks above the stations, plans to beautify and modernise the station precinct, all of these crop up every now and then. Things are being — will inevitably be — passed on to the realm of memory. But for now, the WRL and Kam Sheung Road straddles neatly the line between the old and the new. It’s not a fully gentrified line, but nor is it blindly resisting the onslaught of progress. It’s got a neat little split of personality, surviving in the abyss that exists in between these two irreconciliable extremes. And for now, at least, everyone seems to be doing just fine with that.

But what of the company that started it all? It should come as no surprise that the biggest winner out of all this was, as usual, the people who held the money. Suddenly the KCR found itself in a position where it was not only a competitor, but also a viable alternative to the MTR Corporation. The Hong Kong government, delighted that its capitalist competition had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, invited the KCRC to design projects in increasingly ludicrous places. The long awaited Shatin-Central link. A line leading to Ocean Park, far away from the rest of the KCR network. Less than three years after the WRL opened, that corporation would get too big for its boots, and make an absolutely idiotic mistake that all but led to its complete annihilation the following year. But we’ll get to that delicious story in a couple of months…

Next time: the Disneyland Resort Line offers up a modern fantasy.

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