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Hong Kong Trains

I visited Hong Kong twice, first in January and February 1974, then 35 years later in January 2009. Photos are from the 2009 trip, historical photos are from websites  as noted.

Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) - 1974
In 1974, I was en-route to Peking (now Bejing) with four colleagues for a six week technical sales presentation. This was a year after US President Nixon "opened China to the West". The British, Germans, and French were there before him of course, but who's keeping track? 

I had three days in-bound, waiting on paperwork, to tour Hong Kong streetcars, the Victoria Peak Tram, Kowloon Ferries, and the harbour just west of the Peninsula Hotel.

Out-bound, I enjoyed Chinese New Year with a total of $10 cash in my pocket - the banks were closed and bank machines didn't exist. Even the black market currency exchanges were closed, so I walked a lot. The Colony was British and the buses, trucks, and cars were mostly 1950's and 60's British Leyland. The Empire had not yet been dispersed.

Orientation Maps of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

The 1974 train trip from Kowloon to Canton (now Guangzhou) ran 22 miles north to the Chinese border at Lo Wu. Here we walked across a bridge, through customs, to catch the steam driven express for the remaining 89 miles to Canton, followed by the longer trip to Shanghai. Known as the Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR), the British section was completed during 1906 - 1910, with through traffic over the Chinese section beginning in 1911. 

The KCR train was hauled by n GE-EMD G-12 or G-16. They had 6 wheel trucks to keep the load on the light rails to a minimum. The G-12's had 1250 hp, arrived in 1954 - 56, and were numbered 51 - 55 (built under license in Australia). The G-16's with 1650 hp were #56 - 59 and arrived in 1960 - 64  (3 built in Illinois and the last one in Australia). G-12 #51 is preserved at the Hong Kong Railway Museum at Tai Po. G-16's #56 - 59 were still running in early 2008 with the KCR logo, usually switching or hauling mail cars to the International Mail Center as "extras". They appear to have been retired in 2008 - we did not see them on our 2009 trip.

Antique GE-EMD G-16's still in use in 2008, photos from www.railpictures.net

                       KCR #56 "I. B. Trevor"                                  KCR #57 "Bobby Howes"

                 KCR #58 "Gordon Graham"                            KCR #59 "Gerry Forgates"

In 1974, there were official "minders" at every transfer point to see that we found the correct train and did not stray into sensitive areas. We were the only North Americans on the train, the balance were Chinese officials, plus British, German, and French businessmen. Miles of rice paddies, water buffalo, farmers up to there knees in water, small villages, and many bridges whizzed past as we rumbled along to Shanghai. We were not allowed to take pictures from the train. The steam locomotive at right is similar to the one that hauled us from Canton to Shanghai.

We were guided to our hotel, slept in cool stone-walled rooms, and toured downtown Shanghai on foot. The Sun Yat Sen central park was the focal point of numerous ornate buildings, nothing more than 3 or 4 stories high. After another night at the ancient hotel, we waited two more days at the Shanghai airport for the 6-engine Russian equivalent of a DC-8 to fly us to Beijing. Canvas seats on aluminum frames sized for smaller bodies were extremely uncomfortable, and the noise from six engines was phenomenal. By then we started to feel the cold. Beijing has about the same climate as Winnipeg, and Shanghai's is similar to Vancouver.

Interlude: 35 years later

Now it's 2009, and everything is new, really NEW, except the Hong Kong streetcars, the Peak Tram, and the Kowloon Ferries. Well, they don't look new, but all have been rebuilt or replaced since 1974 and are merely replicas of their former selves. New buildings, new buses, new underground metro transit, new airport, new everything. The old is still there, tucked away between skyscrapers or on steep hillsides.

          Old and new in downtown Kowloon                Mostly new in downtown Hong Kong

Aside from the 1974 and 2009 trips into Hong Kong, I passed through the old Kai Tak airport on at least 5 other trips before it was closed in 1998, en route to Bangladesh or Indonesia. Kai Tak was notorious for its difficult approach and landing procedure while skirting the mountains and high rise buildings that had sprung up around the airport. It involved a descent to about 650 feet, (facing into a 1400 ft hill), then a 47 degree right turn that also dropped the plane to about 140 feet, hopefully leaving the plane lined up with the runway. Before 1975, this was done visually, later aided by ILS, but the eyes were still better.

                                                  Kai Tak Airport c.1974

Canadian Pacific Airlines always asked us to lower the window shades so we
wouldn't see how close to the buildings we were; Cathay Pacific just let us gasp in awe.

Hong Kong Info

Large Scale Kowloon Map


Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR) - 2009
In the early days of course, KCR was steam powered; diesels arrived in 1954 and electric multiple unit (EMU) commuter cars arrived in the 1980's. The KCR was merged with the MTR, Hong Kong's mass transit system, in December 2007, after nearly 100 years of independent operation. The route towards Guangzhou (Canton) became the MTR East Line. KCR West Rail, a light rail commuter line, became MTR West Line.

The inter-city trains to Guangzhou and beyond use the same track as the East Line, running diesel powered express trains, including some high speed bi-level tilt cars, as well as a "bullet" train. There are at least 10 such trains per day between Kowloon and Guangzhou.

Our hotel room at the Stanford overlooked this set of tracks just south of East Mong Kok Station. We could see and hear the electrics swish past quietly, as well as the burbling exhaust of the inter-city diesel starting out with 10 or 12 cars. We also saw a "bullet train" and some bi-level tilt cars, but were not quick enough with the camera. Ask for a room number ending in a "2" if you want to train-watch from your bedroom.


  DF-0008 leaving East Mong Kok Station, taken through the safety screen on the exit platform.

      Telephoto shots of trains south of East Mong Kok Station, from Stanford Hotel room 1602.

The Stanford is on Soy Street halfway between Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok Stations, the heart of the Golden Mile shopping and restaurant district. Reasonable prices too, but food is usually cold in the hotel restaurant. It's more fun out on Nathan Road anyway, with every ethnic cuisine you can imagine, including McD.

                                                       Night lights on Soy Street

Stanford Hotel - the exotic window arrangement gives everyone some interesting views.

Kowloon Canton Railway


Hong Kong Railway Museum, Tai Po, New Territories
This is a small but immaculate collection of KCR equipment, and the original Tai Po station built in 1913 on the Kowloon Canton Railway. An older diesel, a narrow gauge steam engine, and 6 passenger cars are on display, with numerous artifacts in the station. An LGB model train runs in the garden at the push of a button.

The diesel-electric locomotive #51 was introduced in 1955. This one is named "Sir Alexander", after the former Governor Alexander Grantham.

An early W.G. Bagnall 0-4-4T narrow gauge steam locomotive, restored from the Philippines in 1995, is one of two that formerly ran on the Sha Tau Kok Railway line between Fanling and Sha Tau Kok. When that closed, they were used by sugar mills in the Philippines. The other locomotive of the pair was also brought back to Hong Kong and is reported to be undergoing restoration. According to one reference, these locos were probably used during construction of the original KCR, which was narrow gauge while being built and re-gauged before the railway opened.

The six coaches are:
    1911 third-class compartment #302
    1921 engineering coach #002
    1955 third-class compartment #223
    1955 luggage compartment #229
    1964 first-class compartment #112
    1976 ordinary-class compartment #276

Besides these, there are a hand-car and a diesel-engined railcar.

The museum is located about half way between Tai Wo and Tai Po Market Stations on the MTR East Line (surface railway). Catch the train at Mong Kok East and walk west on the north side of the tracks from Tai Po Market Station. No entry fee.

                                         GE-EMD G-12 KCR #51 "Sir Alexander"      

         W. G. Bagnalls 0-4-4T Narrow Gauge                              Model on display

                     Ticket Display                                                        Crew Car

G Gauge Garden Railway at Tai Po Railway Museum
 Wikipedia Page

Victoria Peak Tram, Hong Kong Island
The Peak Tram dates back to 1888 when it used a coal fired boiler to run a steam driven cable to operate two funicular cars. The upbound car is balanced by the downbound car, thus little real power is needed. It runs on a single track with a passing siding at the halfway point. Today it is electric and the two two-car trains carry 120 passengers each way.


The current 2-car trams were built in 1989 by Gangloff in Switzerland. The track is 1384 meters long and rises 368 meters with a maximum grade of 27 degrees. Track gauge is 4 ft 11-7/8 inches (1520 mm).

 Views from Victoria Peak:  Kowloon                                                Hong Kong

The upper station is all glass and steel now, with six stories of shops and lookouts reached by a dozen escalators. Nothing like 1974; this was a parking lot for tourists then. You will find the lower Peak Tram Station a short walk south of the MTR Central Station. Cash fare only.

Historical Photos from Peak Tram Website

                       1888                                                                 1890

                                      1897                                                             1926

                                 1948                                                              1970


Wikipedia Page

Go To Part 2: Streetcars, Buses, Mass Transit, Skyrail