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Fast Tracked

Macau’s much-delayed light rail transit (LRT) project finally appears to be going full steam ahead

Tuesday, 01 March 2011 16:30
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Macau’s casino operators had more to celebrate last month than gaming revenues reaching yet another all-time record. The long anticipated light rail transit (LRT) project was also given a clear go-ahead, with the government awarding Mitsubishi Heavy Industries a contract valued at MOP4.68 billion (US$580 million) for the supply of trains and systems for the first phase.

Scheduled for completion around May 2015—five years behind the government’s original plan—the first phase will connect the casino operators’ flagship properties on both the Macau Peninsula and Cotai with the Gongbei/Macau border, Macau Ferry Terminal, Macau International Airport and Taipa Ferry Terminal. The second phase, still under consultation, will connect A-Ma temple to Gongbei/Macau to form a complete loop of Macau.

First conceived in 2002, the LRT project was held up by concerns about the feasibility of building elevated tracks throughout a densely populated city with narrow streets, the inevitable disruption to residents’ lives, and potential damage to the city’s cultural heritage sites. The original plan was to build a railway connecting older parts of the city with the Gongbei/Macau border. That plan has been revised heavily in order for the LRT to better serve the ever-growing flow of tourists within the city by adding stations in the Macau and Cotai casino areas. Industry insiders expect the revised project to deliver a higher volume of visitors to casinos and encourage them to visit more than one casino.

The first phase of the LRT is designed to transport 7,800 passengers in each direction per hour, and according to estimates, the hourly capacity will increase to 14,100 passengers by 2020. The trains will operate 19 hours a day and run at three to five minute intervals.

Badly needed

In recent years, the Macau government has sought to mitigate the city’s worsening traffic congestion by promoting public transport through such measures as subsidies for public bus operators and restricting private vehicles from entering some downtown areas during public holidays. Local commentators point out, however, that until the public transport system becomes more widespread and reliable, locals will not give up their cars and motorcycles.

The first phase of the LRT includes a station at the Hengqin/Cotai border that will eventually connect to the final phase of the Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway, enabling passengers to travel directly from Guangzhou to the Macau border in one hour. Michael Lam Soi-hoi, a technical consultant at the Transportation Infrastructure Office, told local media: “This will create a one-hour travel radius connecting Macau, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. This is part of a plan for seamless regional integration with the Pearl River Delta.”

The Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway opened to the public in January 2011, but it is considered impractical because connecting stations in downtown Zhuhai are yet open, having been seriously delayed following disputes over land acquisition and redevelopment. The only station to have opened so far in Zhuhai is in Jinding, far from the border with Macau at Gongbei.

Following the lukewarm response to the new railway, the Central Government ordered the speedy completion of the other Zhuhai stations by late 2011 or early 2012 “at any cost”. The Zhuhai authorities also announced plans to extend the railway to Hengqing and Zhuhai Airport.

Once the Zhuhai stations open, tourist inflows into Macau could mushroom. Another driver of visitation to Macau will be the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, scheduled for completion in 2014. Macau’s overstretched transportation network struggled to cope with 25.0 million visitor arrivals in 2010. Macau desperately needs to ramp up its infrastructure development in order to keep up with upcoming regional infrastructure developments.

Secretary for Transport and Public Works Lao Si Io stated during a recent Legislative Assembly session that if Macau failed to ramp up its transport infrastructure, it risked losing its position as the regional entertainment and leisure centre. “Macau will pay a high price if further delays occur,” warned Mr Lao.

Bearing the cost

Although Macau got off to a slower start than its regional neighbours in instituting a mass transit railway system, it is likely to face fewer problems in financing it, thanks to its bulging gaming tax receipts.

The latest budget for the first phase of the LRT stands at 7.5 billion patacas (including the MOP 4.68 billion Mitsubishi contract billion patacas Mitsubishi contract), representing a sharp rise from the original 4.2 billion patacas budget proposed in 2007. The sharp rise has been largely attributed to inflation in construction materials and labours. Notably, the latest budget does not cover supporting facilities such as car parks, bus interchange stations and other transport infrastructure.

The government has hinted the LRT will charge low fares to draw the public and tourists alike—although it has yet to announce whether the future service provider will be publicly or privately held. One indication, though, comes from the government’s recent decision to award the city’s three public bus operators seven-year contracts worth a combined 4.7 billion patacas to run their services, which will effectively be nationalised. The bus fares will go to the government, with no fare increases scheduled and revenue expected to cover only half the cost of the contracts.

Construction fallout

While widespread consensus has been achieved regarding the overall benefits and need for the LRT, it will obviously also have negative impacts—particularly in the short to medium term, when construction of the system will disrupt traffic flows in Macau’s already congested streets and create the assorted pollution associated with such large-scale public works.

Construction is expected to commence in mid-2011 in Taipa and Cotai, where 11 of the stations will be located, then later on the Macau Peninsula, where there will be a further 10 stations. Given that the construction on the peninsula will in several places be near or even overlapping the street circuit for the Macau Grand Prix, the annual international racing event could well be disrupted. The government has yet to give clear details about this and other possible fallout from the LRT construction.

The LRT will be Macau’s largest and most expensive infrastructure project since the Macau International Airport, which was built under the former Portuguese administration and suffered multiple delays and budget blowouts, before opening in November 1995.

Although the LRT project has started late, the work could still be done to schedule and budget. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) appears committed to deliver. Takeo Yamaguchi, the company’s general manager of Transportation Systems and Advanced Technology Division, emphasised Mitsubishi’s previous experience delivering similar projects, including the Taiwan High Speed Rail and the Dubai Metro, which were completed in 2007 and 2009, respectively. He noted: “Of course we have faced difficulties in these projects, but what we can say today is that MHI has completed these projects on time and our clients there are very satisfied with its stable and safe operation.”

In winning the bid for Macau’s LRT, MHI beat two rival bids from a partnership between Bombardier and China Road and Bridge Corporation, and a joint venture between Siemens and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.

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