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July 1, 2011

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Taking the train to Hong Kong

JASON Chan still remembers the thrill and anticipation when he boarded the T99/100 train at Hong Kong's Kowloon Station on a weekend in October 1997. He paid HK$1,000 (now US$129) for first class and prepared to spend more than 30 hours before arriving in Shanghai.

The Shanghai native, now 65 years old, moved to Hong Kong in the late 1980s and hadn't visited his hometown since then. He couldn't wait to speak Shanghai dialect with the train attendants, and after he boarded their chatter stirred fond memories, helped him pass the time and calm down before arriving in Shanghai.

Zhao Ying, head of T99/100 crew (T99 runs to Hong Kong, T100 to Shanghai) started working as conductor for the train on May 19, 1997, when it was launched just before Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. Zhao remembers a lot of passengers like Chan, who are Hong Kong-based Shanghainese and just love to speak dialect with staff.

"It makes them feel close to home. We received training in Cantonese before the train was launched, but almost all passengers speak mandarin now, even many foreigners have fluent mandarin and can throw out a few lines of Shanghainese," she says.

"Most passengers choose us because of the price, but Hong Kong passengers who are native Shanghainese have stayed with us for years because they feel like they're in Shanghai right away as they step onto the train."

The trip, 1,919 kilometers, took more than 30 hours when the line was first launched, and now it takes only 18 and a half. High-speed railways, currently a hot topic all over China, are also on the Shanghai-Hong Kong agenda. Bullet trains could shorten the trip to less than 10 hours.

The overnight train leaves Shanghai Station at 6:30pm every other day, stops at Jinhua in Zhejiang Province, Zhuzhou in Hunan Province and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. It arrives at Kowloon Station around noon. Kowloon is prodounced "jiulong" in mandarin.

It leaves Hong Kong at 3:30pm, also every other day, and arrives in Shanghai around 10am the next day.

The hard-sleeper ticket, the cheapest, is around 400 yuan (US$62), and the most expensive about 1,000 yuan. With discounts for group travelers and round-trips, the tickets can be as cheap as around 500 yuan for a round-trip, a great advantage compared with flight tickets, which are usually at least 2,000 yuan round-trip.

"Though it takes a bit too long, I still take the train a lot since I go to Hong Kong quite often. It has saved me a big fortune, so I can buy more stuff there, and I just spend an evening on the road, not too bad," says Zhang Yan, a boutique shop owner who travels to Hong Kong every few weeks for shopping.

Crew head Zhao also says that the train, with a capacity of 478 seats, is almost always filled, mostly with group travelers, regardless of the season. It was especially popular during the World Expo in Shanghai last year.

The other important train from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong is the Beijing-Kowloon line, which was launched even earlier, on September 1, 1996. It also leaves every other day.

The T99/100 has witnessed major transformations in passenger profiles, reflecting a slice of the great transformation of the two financial centers, as well as that of the relationship between them.

"It is completely different now. In the beginning, more than three quarters of our passengers got off in Guangdong Province, and now more than two-thirds to the final destination - Hong Kong," says Zhao.

When the line was first launched, before Hong Kong's 1997 return, the majority of passengers were Hong Kong residents going to visit relatives in Shanghai; now passengers are mainly group passengers from both cities and more than two-thirds are mainlanders, she says.

Until 2003, when individual travel to Hong Kong was launched, all passengers had to get off with their luggage at Dongguang, Guangdong Province, to pass customs.

Train of babies

It's common to see very, very pregnant women from the Chinese mainland taking the train to Hong Kong to give birth to their second child. China's basic one-child policy is not in effect in Hong Kong, so they are not penalized. Those babies do not automatically receive Hong Kong residency but children born there become eligible through a long process.

"They really love the most expensive seats, with two beds and a bathroom in one compartment," says Yang Feifei, conductor of the T99. "A few days later they come back on the same train, holding their cute babies."

In 2010, 88,000 babies were born in Hong Kong, including more than 40,000 born with Chinese mainland mothers. The cost of delivery in Hong Kong usually costs more than 100,000 yuan and hospitals require very early reservations.

In April, the Hong Kong government announced a reduction in the quota for non-local women to give births to 35,000 for 2012, 18 percent less than that of 2010. It also has increased the total cost of having baby born in Hong Kong to at least 150,000 yuan.

Many of these women from all over China take the T99/100 since they are not allowed to fly.

"We see them on almost every trip; and it's actually not very comfortable for pregnant women, most of them just about to give birth, to take a long train," says Zhao.

The crew does its best to help the pregnant women and new mothers, learning basic medical knowledge, adding lighter dishes to the menus, adjusting the compartment temperature, and doing other things to make them comfortable.


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