Given the frequency and passenger volumes of commuter rail services in the UK, it is surprising that no foreign urban metro operators have so far won a British train operating franchise. This could soon change if Hong Kong's MTR Corporation gets its way.
MTR has been bidding for train franchises for the last 12 months.
Its first attempt - in collaboration with GNER - was a bid for the integrated Kent franchise.
The GNER/MTR bid came a close second, encouraging MTR to put in a subsequent tender for the Thameslink franchise with Laing Rail, which they again failed to win.
But MTR is not giving up, and this time it is bidding with GNER to oust Stagecoach from the South West trains franchise.
It has a strong track record running Hong Kong's 80.4km subway system, which handles 2.24M passengers per week.
'It is just a matter of time before we win one, ' says MTR's China and international business director Francis Lung.
'For the South West trains bid we have upped our preparation, the team is more prepared and we are better co-ordinated with our partners. We are quietly con dent, but the market is very tough.' Upping the game includes leveraging MTR's track maintenance expertise to support the bid. MTR operates trains and track in Hong Kong and believes that strong relationships between its maintenance crews and train operators contribute to service reliability.
For this reason it has already begun discussions with Network Rail with a view to increasing maintenance and passenger service ef ciencies in the south west region.
'The perception is that we are Chinese and low quality, ' says Lung. But he points out that, although 70% owned by the Hong Kong government and, by extension, the Chinese government, MTR is no lame duck state-run enterprise. Instead it functions like a hard driven commercial organisation with an enviable record for customer service.
Average service reliability is just under 100% and the Corporation has been protable for more than 10 years, achieving margins of around 50% without the help of state subsidies.
Winning train operating franchises is part of MTR's strategy to spread its tentacles beyond Hong Kong. Since it was created in the 1970s, the Corporation has developed strong expertise in project management, having procured e major subway lines plus the Airport Express.
But, with its core network now in place, the stream of projects that has kept its civil engineers busy since the 1970s has begun to dry up, prompting the launch of its foreign expansion strategy.
Success with project delivery has clearly impressed the authorities in mainland China.
The Corporation is currently working on projects to deliver metro lines for Shanghai, Shenzen and Beijing.
As well as major projects, MTR has a degree of niche expertise in rail related property development.
It has funded much of the construction of its network through the sale of air rights above its stations, notably Hong Kong station, which is located beneath the recently completed 88 storey International Finance Centre building.
This expertise is something MTR is very interested in selling to European operators, including Network Rail.
INFOPLUS NCE is holding its Future of UK Rail conference on 18 May at the Ibis Hotel in central London.
For more details call 0845 056 8069 or email construct conferences@emap. com