Two masked officials from Hong Kong's MTR show signs showing the reduction in train length from 12 carriages to 9 carriages

MTR officials prepare passengers for a shortening of East Rail Line trains

MTR will slash the length of East Rail Line trains from 12 to nine carriages while maintaining the more expensive first class carriage on the train, citing difficulties in fitting 12-car trains into the Hong Kong Island rail system, ahead of the line extension across Victoria Harbour to Admiralty.

MTR says the new nine-car trains will be an improvement for passengers, with “wider body and newly designed interior”, but avoids questions on the exact dimensions of the new carriages or how many passengers they could hold. According to MTR, the trains will maintain a first class carriage, meaning the more expensive first class carriage now takes up 11%, rather than 8% of the train capacity. First class is effectively more than double the fare of standard class, with the additional fare premium at HK$43 for Hung Hom to Lok Ma Chau journey, on top of the $39 standard Octopus fare.

A train display in Hong Kong showing a mix of 9-car and 12-car trains dues

MTR will phase in the shorter trains from the middle of this year, with the transition complete by the end of 2021.

Against concerns of overcrowding, the firm says signalling improvements, which are almost complete, should allow East Rail Line train frequency to increase to around two minutes, giving the line a similar carrying capacity to its 12-car operation. A transit insider confirms this, and says the new signalling system should allow as many as 30 nine-car trains per hour, if not more, against 24 of the 12-car trains per hour at present.

However, as far back as 2014, lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king raised the issue of overcrowding on the line, citing a Transport Department paper which found each passenger had barely 2.7 sq ft of space at rush hour. In response to Lee’s questioning in the Legislative Council, then-Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the government estimated around 20% of the passengers on the section between Tai Wai and Kowloon Tong would divert to the new Shatin-Central Link, alleviating congestion. MTR confirms this today, saying some East Rail passengers are expected to start using the new Tuen Ma Line for that stretch.

This may be little comfort to East Rail Line passengers, who say the congestion problem is not limited to the Tai Wai-Kowloon Tong stretch. Southbound trains are, according to one passenger, often already full on arrival from border stations at peak hours, with standing in the more expensive First Class carriage the only available option to board.

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