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High-speed rail service arrives in Hong Kong with a whimper

The city that used to be a major Asian hub has lost its stature as part of China

This high-speed train can get from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in 47 minutes, but many passengers are getting off at Shenzhen.   © AP

HONG KONG -- An express railway between Hong Kong and mainland China has drastically cut travel times, but not as many commuters and tourists as expected have been taking the train all the way to or from this special administrative region.

The Hong Kong government anticipated 80,000 daily entries to and departures from the region after the section between Hong Kong and Shenzhen opened on Sept. 23. The tally for that day, however, came to 75,500. The figure dropped to 46,500 the next day and to 37,800 the day after that.

With the Hong Kong-Shenzhen section complete, passengers can travel between the territory and Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, in 47 minutes.

Conventional trains need two hours to make the journey.

Service from Hong Kong to Beijing takes eight hours and 56 minutes, with trains reaching a maximum speed of 350 kph. To Shanghai, the time is eight hours and 17 minutes.

During China's recent string of National Day holidays, Hong Kong did receive an influx of mainland tourists, mostly thanks to the new link. There were more than 270,000 overall visits made to the territory on National Day, Oct. 1, up 14% from a year earlier, according to local media. The reports put the number of these arrivals from mainland China at slightly fewer than 250,000, a 20% increase from the same day in 2017.

But despite the holiday bump, traffic along the newly opened leg remains light.

A ride on a Hong Kong-bound long-distance train that departed the southern city of Guangzhou on Sept. 24, another national holiday, made this reality clear.

The train looks exactly like a Japanese shinkansen and features the latest technology. The cars have rows of five seats, two on one side of the aisle and three on the other.

The lighting and interior design create a luxurious ambiance, but with a chill-out vibe. The ride was comfortable with little shaking.

In Guangzhou, the train arrived full. Passengers got off, more boarded and the train left the station just as it had arrived -- full. The overhead racks were so crammed with carry-on luggage and belongings that some of it was spilling over the edge.

The assumption that many people were heading to Hong Kong proved to be wrong. About two-thirds of the riders got off in Shenzhen, leaving a lot of empty seats for the final leg of the journey.

The sparsely filled trains from Shenzhen to Hong Kong seem to tell a tale of demographics. Guangzhou has a population of 14.5 million, Shenzhen 12.5 million and Hong Kong 7.4 million.

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are bursting with people who seem to be buying so many seats for long journeys that they are shutting out travelers from Hong Kong wishing to go longer distances.

In addition, riders to and from Shenzhen and Guangzhou apparently prefer the latest, more comfortable train to older ones. This trend is also working to keep Hong Kong travelers off the high-speed rail.

Hong Kong is falling down the pecking order in another way: It contributed less than 3% of China's gross domestic product in 2017, down from about 18% in 1997, when the former British colony was returned to China.

Hong Kong is a latecomer to China's high-speed rail party. The country's bullet trains today traverse over 25,000 km of rail. In 2007, they covered 1,350 km.

Perhaps this is the message that the shiny new trains delivered to Hong-Kongers last month: Their city, once a major Asian hub, is becoming just another of China's sprawling metropolises.

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