Case study of transport infrastructure: Hong Kong

By Matt Burdett, 13 February 2019

On this page, we look at Hong Kong as a case study of infrastructure growth over time in one city. This page is part of a series on Hong Kong’s infrastructure that includes international links, transport, telecommunications, energy and water and sanitation.

  • Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s minibus system is divided into red and green; red minibuses have fewer regulations.

Transport in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s public transport system is regarded as one of the world’s most successful, from both an economic and passenger perspective. Although frequently crowded, services are punctual and low cost. Each day, 12.7 million passenger journeys are made by public transport.

Mass Transit Rail: The MTR

The MTR is a system of underground railways (like the London Underground and the New York Subway). The first line opened in 1979 (Springer, 2016) and continues to grow, with a length of 231km (GovHK, 2019) and new lines, extensions and stations constantly under construction. It is very efficient, with trains running on-time for 99.9% of the time (Kuo, 2018).

The growth in the number of lines has been steady since 1979. Reasons for growth include the difficulty of building above-ground transport routes – Hong Kong is a mainly mountainous region. Furthermore, the government doesn’t want to encourage private transport because the roads are already heavily congested.


Lines opened (Source: GovHKb, 2018)


Kwun Tong Line


Tsuen Wan Line


Island Line


Eastern Harbour Crossing connecting Lam Tin to Quarry Bay


Tung Chung Line


Tseung Kwan O Line


West Rail Line


Ma On Shan Line


Disneyland Resort Line


Bifurcation of East Rail to boundary crossing at Lok Ma Chau


Bifurcation of Tseung Kwan O Line to LOHAS Park Station

Extension of West Rail Line to Hung Hom Station interchanging with East Rail Line

Bifurcation of Tseung Kwan O Line to LOHAS Park Station


Extension of Island Line to Kennedy Town Station


Extension of Kwun Tong Line to Whampoa Station

South Island Line

Under construction*

Shatin to Central Link

*At time of writing

Road transport: tunnels

Highways create a high-speed road system around the main urban areas, but Hong Kong has a very coastal and mountainous environment which makes it very difficult to build roads connecting places. Hong Kong has therefore built tunnels through mountains and under the harbour, and also built enormous bridges to connect the city with the airport.

The cross-harbour tunnels that link Hong Kong Island with Kowloon are not actually cut through the rock under the sea, but ‘immersed tube’ designs, as shown in the photograph below. These sections of tunnel are built above ground, then floated into position on the surface of the water before being sunk. When they are securely on the seabed, they are connected together forming a long tube through which vehicles can drive.

  • Immersed tunnel sections awaiting transportation and sinking. Source: Thomas, 2017

There are 16 road tunnels in Hong Kong. (Source: GovHK, 2018)

Name of feature

Year opened

Further detail

Lion Rock Tunnel


North Kowloon to Sha Tin

92 300 vehicles daily

Aberdeen Tunnel


60 100 vehicles daily

Kai Tak Tunnel


Kowloon to Kwun Tong

53 100 vehicles per day

Shing Mun Tunnels


Tsuen Wan to Sha Tin

54 200 vehicles

Tseung Kwan O Tunnel


Kwun Tong and Tseung Kwan O New Town

92 800 vehicles per day

Cheung Tsing Tunnel


West Kowloon with Lantau

Cross-Harbour Tunnel


113 800 vehicles daily

Eastern Harbour Crossing


77 200 vehicles daily

Tate’s Cairn Tunnel


60 800 vehicles daily

Western Harbour Crossing


67 600 vehicles daily

Tai Lam Tunnel


60 700 vehicles daily

Discovery Bay Tunnel Link


2 300 vehicles daily

Tai Wai Tunnel, Sha Tin Heights Tunnel, Eagle’s Nest Tunnel (and Nam Wan Tunnel*)

2008 (*2009)

57 400 vehicles daily

Other transport: trams, ferries and buses

Hong Kong has several light-rail systems, mainly in the New Territories where they serve the population of new towns. As well as the Peak Tram (which is really a tourist attraction, as it carries people up to the Peak above the Central Business District), one of the most famous of the trams is the line running along the northern side of Hong Kong Island. This tram system has been in operation since 1904. It is 16km long and carries over 170,000 passengers per day. (GovHK, 2019.) There have been no extensions to the tram system and it has occasionally been threatened with closure. With only one track in each direction, trams are subject to ‘bunching’. This means that trams become stuck in a queue as they cannot overtake one another. Furthermore, the trams share the roads with regular traffic which makes some people feel they are taking up space that could be used more efficiently (Poon, 2015). However, there is a strong love for the tram amongst many Hong Kongers and the threat of closure seems to have abated.

Ferries are another iconic means of transport in Hong Kong. Many people live on outlying islands such as Lamma and Cheung Chau, which are only accessible by ferry. The most famous ferry service is the Star Ferry established in 1898, which runs two routes across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.

Bus routes have also been developed and carry millions of passengers a day. The Hong Kong government provides licences to bus companies which all use an integrated payment method (along with the MTR) called the Octopus system.The KMB bus company carries 2.76 million passengers per day; the New World First Bus company carries 454000; and the Citybus company carries 502000. (Source: GovHK, 2018)

There is also an extensive system of minibuses (shown in the photograph at the top of this page). These small buses usually carry no more than 16 people and are popular because they can travel up the narrow and steep streets of Hong Kong.

An integrated payment system: Octopus

One of the secrets of Hong Kong’s successful transport system is the Octopus card. Hong Kong was the first city in the world to introduce an integrated means of payment for all public transport (ferries, trams, buses and MTR) in 1997 (Octopus, 2019). This type of payment card is now common in many cities. Passengers add money to a card which is then tapped against a card reader at the point of entry and exit from public transport. In Hong Kong, the system has expanded to be a commonly used form of payment in many shops, so 95% of the population carry an Octopus card (Szuc, 2008) and it has moved the city towards being a truly cashless society. One of the main benefits is that it is speeds up transactions which reduces transport delays.


GovHK, 2018. Transport. Hong Kong: The Facts. Accessed 26 January 2019.

GovHKb, 2018. Railway Network. Hong Kong: The Facts. Accessed 26 January 2019.

Kuo, 2018. Hong Kong train network suffers its worst ever delay – a six-hour signal failure. Accessed 27 January 2019.

Octopus, 2019. Corporate Profile: Overview. Accessed 9 February 2019.

Poon, 2015. Should Hong Kong Scrap Its Iconic Tramway? Accessed 27 January 2019.

Springer, 2016. How Hong Kong’s MTR Came to Be. Accessed 26 January 2019.

Szuc, 2008. A Really Smart Card: How Hong Kong’s Octopus Card moves people. Accessed 9 February 2019.

Thomas, 2017. Hong Kong’s Immersed Tube Milestone. Accessed 9 February 2019.

Xavier114fch, 2014. Planned expanded future network of the Hong Kong MTR. Accessed 27 January 2019.

Case study of infrastructure growth: Hong Kong: Learning activities


  1. State the number of passengers carried by public transport each day in Hong Kong. [1]
  2. Describe the main features of Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system. Refer to statistical information in your answer. [3]
  3. Construct a sketch graph of the expansion of the MTR between 1979 and today. [4] Note: A line graph is most appropriate as the x axis of the graph is time. The y axis should be the number of lines and line extensions.
  4. Explain why Hong Kong requires significant road tunnels. [2]
  5. Describe the process used to create the cross-harbour tunnels. [3]
  6. Construct a sketch graph of the expansion of the tunnel network from 1967 to today. [4] Note: A line graph is most appropriate as the x axis of the graph is time. The y axis should be the number of tunnels.
  7. Describe the other forms of public transport used in Hong Kong. Refer to statistics in your response. [2+2+2]
  8. Suggest how the development of the Octopus card system has enhanced Hong Kong’s public transport infrastructure. [2+2]

Other tasks

On a blank map of Hong Kong, add the major features of infrastructure that are shown on this page. Continue to add to your map using the other pages on this site.

Going further

The MTR corporation has a unique funding method: the MTR not only runs the railways but also owns the land on which the stations are built, including the shopping malls and residential tower blocks that are built above the stations. This allows it to make enormous amounts from renting the shops and homes, which in turn allows it to spend more on developing the network. Conduct research, starting with this article, to find out more about how Hong Kong has paid for the rapid and expansive development of its MTR system.

© Matthew Burdett, 2019. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.