The MTR is super easy to ride. For one thing, you use the Octopus card (akin to London’s Oyster Card). It’s a touch-and-go stored value card, which means you can leave it in your wallet and just touch your wallet to the turnstile as you enter and leave. You can also use your Octopus card on things like the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, and at all kinds of stores (like 7-11). I use my OctoCard (no one calls it that, not even me) to pay my entrance fee at the CityU gym, and you can use it to pay overdue fines at the library. It is, in a word, awesomegreat.
Funny side story about getting our Octopus cards. Right after breakfast on our first full day here, we went down into the Kowloon Tong station to get our cards. We go up to the kiosk with HK$300 in cash (a new card has $100 of credit on it, plus a $50 deposit), and Cate slides over the $300 and says “Two Octopus cards, please.” And the station attendant says “One-hundred fifty.” And Cate says “Yes, but I’d like two, please.” He says “One at a time.” So Cate looks at me askance and slides him $200. He gives her an Octopus card and $50 change. She hands me the Octopus card, then slides the $50 back to him along with our third $100 bill. He calmly takes it without a word and hands her another Octopus card. We still don’t know why he couldn’t hand us two cards at once.
MTR stations are clean, well-lit, and well-signed. They’re also very safe—none of the not-after-dark sketchiness of some (or all) of the stations in other systems of the world. Here’s Central.
If you can read a map, you can ride the MTR. And inside almost all of the trains are these handy lighted signs that show which station you’re at, which is next, and at transfer (British English “interchange”) stations also flash the lights of the line you can change to. Plus everything is announced over clear and functioning speakers (hear that, CTA?) in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. This offers an excellent way to learn how to pronounce some Cantonese.
The MTR was also cleverly designed with cross-platform transfers. What this means is that a given platform does not necessarily offer access to the same line in different directions, but it does mean that you can transfer lines without having to go up or down stairs.
Look at that map. If you’re traveling on the red (Tsuen Wan) line from Admiralty and want to go to Kowloon Tong (on the green Kwun Tong line), you can transfer at Mong Kok by simply walking across the platform—that is, on that platform, both the red and green line trains are headed north. Same goes for traveling in the opposite direction—you change from the green to the red at Mong Kok, because both trains at that platform are traveling south. So at Mong Kok, the green/red interchange platforms are stacked up vertically, with the northbound trains together and the southbound trains together.
But, if you want to go from, say, Kowloon Tong (green line) to Sham Shui Po (red line) to buy some cut-rate printer toner, you transfer at Prince Edward, not just because it’s closer but because the trains are stacked differently. Here, the southbound green line train and the northbound red line train are on the same platform, and vice versa on the other platform. So this means that somewhere between Prince Edward and Mong Kok, there’s a switcheroo. Fascinating.
It is also profitable. Very profitable.
The MTR is a private corporation. (Prior to 2001, the MTR was wholly owned by the Hong Kong government.) It’s listed on the Hang Seng Index (MTRC), so buy some shares if you want to. It’s one of the few profitable public transit systems in the world not only from the money that fares brings in, but also because it is heavily involved in land development. The MTR develops lands near its stations into housing estates and shopping malls, which it can then (of course) advertise in the MTR to the millions of people who ride it each day.
The stations themselves are also prime real estate. Every MTR station has shops in it, and we’re not talking just newsstands (though there are those too). We’re talking high-end stuff: food, clothing, cosmetics, banking, etc.
Here are a few in Central:
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Next up: it’s so inexpensive! Also, an old-timey documentary!