A maiden journey on Hong Kong’s sparkling new high-speed train

It's time to take a ride on the fastest train out of town. Here's what it was like.
Cam MacMurchy

China has been rapidly expanding its national high-speed rail network for more than 15 years, and today it stretches from Shenyang to Lhasa and Wulumuqi to Zhaoqing. It is now the largest high-speed railway network in the world, and is a monument to China’s rapid modernization and breakneck economic development.

That’s been a good story for Mainland China, but one of its most prosperous territories has been left out of the high-speed rail party up until this year: Hong Kong. I won’t recount the controversies that surrounded the project at every step (I remember attending a protest against the high-speed rail project in front of the old Legislative Council building back in 2010), suffice to say that Hong Kongers, continually wary of China’s true motives, weren’t exactly begging for their own station. The cost of building the high-speed line, which needed to be entirely underground in Hong Kong, was prohibitive, and the co-location of customs and immigration formalities within Hong Kong might even be unconstitutional. But the project was a priority to Beijing, and when a Communist Party in an authoritarian state decides something must get done, it will be so.

Heading to the new Kowloon West Railway Station.

I’ve been a somewhat regular traveler on other sections of China’s high-speed network, mainly between Beijing and Tianjin as well as Shenzhen and Guangzhou. But for my stag, we caught a bullet train from Shenzhen to Changsha (don’t ask). It’s an engineering marvel to be sure, but sometimes the ‘software’ (customer service, ticket procurement, crowd control) doesn’t quite align with the high-tech ‘hardware’.

Nevertheless I was excited to board a bullet train at the southern tip of China’s national railway project in Hong Kong this weekend. The station actually opened in late October 2018, and the facility is breathtaking. It’s situated at on the Kowloon waterfront with a roof that looks like waves. There is plenty of green, open-air space (a rare commodity in this town) and it’s easy to access from public transit.

The signage is everywhere after disembarking from the MTR inside Elements mall.

I left my apartment in Sheung Wan at about 1:15pm and headed towards Sheung Wan MTR Station. I transferred at Central to the Tung Chung Line, and rode it across the harbour one station to Kowloon. That’s where I got off the train and immediately began seeing signs pointing the way to the High Speed Rail Terminal.

In Hong Kong, if you need to go anywhere, chances are the path will lead through a shopping mall. This was no different, as travelers hauled their luggage behind them as they trundled through the mall, past an ice rink (!) and out into an open-air flyover (pedestrian overpass) that connects to the terminal.

Kowloon West Station

The terminal itself, as I mentioned, is quite spectacular. It’s amazing this amount of sheer space was found in Hong Kong, where land is at such a premium. Tickets can be purchased in advance, but I lined up at the ticket counters to buy one. They accept the Chinese e-payment systems (Alipay, WeChat Pay) as well as the foreign ones (Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Apple Pay).

Time to buy tickets!

The ticket seller told me that tickets must be purchased one hour before a departure, telling me he’d sell me a ticket for the 2:43 train. I asked if there was an earlier one, and he said 2:19, though he couldn’t guarantee I’d make it. It was 1:45 at the time, so I told him I’d take my chances. I snagged the ticket, snapped a couple of photos, and made my way to security.

I had been warned in advance that the walk from the ticket counter to the departure platform would be a long one, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated. It took a minute to walk over to security, which is akin to airport security but taken even less seriously. I carried a bottle of Evian right on through, and despite beeps coming from every direction nobody asked me to stop. I grabbed my bag and carried on.

First up was Hong Kong customs and immigration; I am fortunate to have a Hong Kong ID card, so plunked that into the machine, submitted my thumb print, and was done. The whole thing took about 15 seconds.

Departures area wasn’t very crowded.

That was followed by a few minute walk past some Duty Free shops and over to Chinese customs and immigration. This was the weirdest part of the experience, because I was in that no-man’s-land outside of “Hong Kong” but not yet in Mainland China. Even the decorations and vibe in this section of the terminal are different — dare I say slightly darker (and more menacing?!)

The People’s Republic of China, which is barred from enforcing its laws on Hong Kong soil according to the Basic Law, enforces its laws on Hong Kong soil in this part of the terminal. Kind of. Admittedly it makes a lot more sense to clear Chinese customs formalities before one gets on the train; if not, every single rail station in Mainland China would need to have a cordoned off customs area for the handful of people who might be coming from Hong Kong. Still, I don’t need to point out that relations between Hong Kong and Mainland China are rocky at best, so Hong Kongers aren’t exactly in the mood to do China a solid for their own convenience.

I am usually on the Hong Kong side when it comes to disputes with the Mainland, but this is one area where I’m pleased that common sense prevailed. The co-location of customs facilities isn’t a local issue, nor are they rare. In my home town of Vancouver, people routinely clear US customs at Vancouver Airport before flying off to some US destination. I get that, from a political perspective, it’s not deal for Hong Kong. But I think we’ll get over it.

Waiting (too long, it turns out) to board.

After waiting about 10 minutes in line to clear Chinese immigration, I raced to gate 9 to board the train to Shenzhen Futian Station. I stood there with about 13 other passengers as announcements rang out saying our train was boarding. Yet there was a stanchion blocking the two ticket gates that led to the platform. We continued to wait as the announcements were made, when one diminutive, frazzled lady came bounding over shouting “不好意思! 不好意思!” (“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”) and ripped down the stanchions. I guess she had forgotten to let us on.

The platform level resembles an underground station that could be found anywhere in the world, except much much newer. I was surprised to find the 13 people from the line upstairs were literally the only people boarding the train, so there was plenty of room to spread out. I took my seat, opened my iPad, saw the train pull away, read a couple of articles, and then I was suddenly in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen Futian Station

The entire journey in the Hong Kong section of the Express Rail Link is underground, and the first station in Mainland China is Shenzhen Futian. Futian is basically Shenzhen’s downtown, and the train station there is massive and empty. It houses a lonely Starbucks, Family Mart, and a lot of open space.

Arrived in Futian 11 minutes after departure.

There is a large taxi stand at the station (again, nobody there), but I popped up a different exit which was right in front of the Shangri La Hotel, where I am as I write this. Within a couple of blocks is Central Walk, a major shopping mall (with one of my favorite pizza joints in China, NYPD Pizza), along with a whole host of other dining and shopping options. It’s probably the best possible place to be dropped off in Shenzhen.

Had I stayed on the train, it would’ve continued to Shenzhen North Station and then on to somewhere else in China.

Final thoughts

I’ve been crossing the border between Hong Kong and the Mainland since around 2006. I feel intimately familiar with all the different ways to get between Shenzhen or Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and I’ve tried every single one. Geographically, Shenzhen is close to Hong Kong, but psychologically, it’s far. It’s far because going there requires passports, usually a hotel room booked, navigating masses of people, booking train tickets, going through security and customs, and on and on. I’d like to pop up more often, but I’m less and less inclined to do so.

This train has the potential to be a real game-changer. Yes, it still takes longer than it should — it occurred to me that I spent more time in Kowloon Station buying tickets and going to my gate than I did on the actual train to Shenzhen. There are areas where this could be sped up, and I expect it to slow down even further on Fridays and major holidays.

One of the exits to street level in Shenzhen.

Still, it’s a huge upgrade over what existed before. I expect I’ll be taking this train repeatedly in the coming years, and hope to head up to Guangzhou as early as next weekend. It’s the kind of fast, efficient transportation infrastructure that Hong Kong is known for, and brings the cities of the Pearl River Delta (or ‘Bay Area’ as the Communist Party would like us to refer to it) even closer together.

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