Three stories this week about Hong Kong or Chinese companies operating (or hoping to operate) in the UK. First there's public transport (from The Guardian):
A Chinese state-controlled rail operator has made a surprise entry into Britain's rail industry, with ambitious plans to bid for franchises covering mainline rail services throughout London and the home counties.
Er, Chinese state controlled, you say? This is the MTRC, in case you missed the story.
Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR) has struck a deal with the inter-city firm GNER to table a joint bid for a new franchise covering all of Kent. With a punctuality record of 99%, MTR claims to be the world's most reliable train company. It is listed on the Hong Kong stock market but 77% of its shares are held by Hong Kong's government.
The Hong Kong government is not quite the same thing as the Chinese state - One Country, Two Systems, blah, blah, blah. The Guardian helpfully makes a few comparisons between the Hong Kong MTR and the network of lines in Kent that are covered by this franchise
In Hong Kong, there is little overcrowding because nearly everybody stands - there are 48 seats in carriages for 300 people. While South Eastern Trains spent £500,000 cleaning graffiti off its trains last year, MTR said vandalism in China was virtually unknown. Mr Gaffney said in Asian cultures, "people value property, in particular other people's property, too much to destroy it".
Hong Kong's rail network comprises 80km of track, 49 stations and carries 2.24 million passengers a day. Kent's railways cover 773km of track, 178 stations and carry 400,000 people a day.
Commuter railways around London suffer from chronic problems with vandalism and graffiti. In Hong Kong, graffiti is unknown and the rail operator can only recall three instances of vandalism since its operations began in 1979.
Hong Kong's MTR authority made a profit of HK$4.4bn (£304m) last year and received no subsidy. South Eastern Trains was supported by £49.2m of government cash.
Punctuality on Hong Kong's railways slipped slightly last year to 98.9%. South Eastern Trains' punctuality was 79%, falling to 75% during rush hours.
Hong Kong's MTR network is 77% owned by the city's government and is ultimately answerable to the city's chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa. South Eastern Trains has been under the control of the British government since Veolia Environnement's Connex subsidiary was sacked for poor financial management a year ago.
No public subsidy? Well, I suppose we better not mention the land rights that the government routinely grants to the MTRC. They develop a couple of dozen apartments and a small parade of shops on top of each station, and everyone's happy. Or, as Jake van der Kamp puts it, the MTRC is really a property company than also operates a train service.
There's another quote in the article from a trainspotter type, pointing out that the MTR is "a brand new system which was built by the Brits. They have brand new trains and
a brand new track which has been steadily upgraded and improved." We'll move swiftly on without discussing whether it was really built by the Brits, but the key point is that as well as being a modern system, the MTR has the great advantage that it consists of a small number of self-contained lines. The problem with all the London commuter lines are that a multitude of fast and slow services all operate along the same tracks, and a small problem with one service can have a knock-on effect elsewhere.
If trains are delayed for 10 minutes on the MTR, that'll probably be the top story on the news, and self-important legislators will insist that "something has to be done". On a London commuter service, being ten minutes late is trivial and almost routine (on some lines, being only ten minutes is actually a cause for celebration).
The Standard also reports this story, and mentions that this is not the first time that the MTRC has bid for a public transport project in the UK.
MTRC suffered a setback in July after the British government denied funding for a GBP50 million tram project in Portsmouth in southern England. MTRC was part of the Smart consortium, one of the two groups that tendered for the development of the 14 kilometre link. The railway operator also failed in its bid for tram schemes in Leeds and Manchester previously.
All I can say is that if the MTRC do win this franchise, their problems will only just have begun!