2010-08-21

Tom Holland:A good deal for Li Ka-shing but an ugly warning for HK

When the Channel Tunnel first opened back in 1994, the undersea link between the European continent and Britain was rightly hailed as an engineering marvel.

But for Brits, catching the Eurostar high-speed train from Paris to London was a deeply chastening experience.

The super-slick express would glide smoothly out of the Gare du Nord, accelerating rapidly through the suburbs of Paris as you strolled down to the buffet car for your coffee and croissants. By the time you got back to your seat a few minutes later, the train was already well out into the countryside, whisking you silently across the drab agricultural plains of Picardy at a cruising speed of 300km/h.

A little over an hour later the train's speed would ease back to a mere 160km/h and the windows would black out as it entered the tunnel. After another 20 minutes you would burst back into the light to find yourself in England, and the train would slow down again - right down.

Although you might still have been moving forward, it felt as if you had travelled back in time. For the next 1-1/2 hours, the Eurostar would crawl along ancient Kentish branch lines through pastures of dairy cattle, winding past oast houses and occasionally grinding to a halt at charming country stations decorated with hanging baskets of flowers.

Eventually you would reach the southern suburbs of London, where, if anything, your progress would become even more fitful. I distinctly recall, one grey Monday morning somewhere in the vicinity of Herne Hill, watching glumly out of the window as the world's newest and most expensive high-speed train was overtaken by a man on a bicycle.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity you would shudder to a stop at Waterloo station in central London, fully three hours after leaving the Gare du Nord in Paris.

No longer: in November 2007 a 109 kilometre high-speed rail link opened on the English side of the Channel, connecting London's St Pancras station to the tunnel and cutting the original journey time between the British and French capitals to just over two hours.

Now the cash-strapped British government has put the new rail line - called High Speed 1 - up for sale. At an indicative price range of between £1.5 billion (HK$18.2 billion) and £2 billion, Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Infrastructure is interested in making a bid.

For Li, High Speed 1 could be an attractive acquisition. The line makes its money by charging users - the Eurostar, as well as domestic British train operators - fixed fees for each train service. The charges are regulated and index-linked to the British inflation rate. Even better, minimum revenues from domestic operators are guaranteed by the British government, while new European rules are expected to open the market to additional international operators, boosting revenues. On top of that, High Speed 1's buyer should have considerable scope to increase revenues from retail operations at the line's four stations.

In other words, High Speed 1 offers a steady and predictable cash flow - the line is expected to generate an operating profit before depreciation and amortisation costs of £135 million this year from revenues of £263 million - with little downside risk but plenty of scope to benefit from increases in traffic.

Yet although the sale of High Speed 1 might present an enticing opportunity to Li, it offers a salutary warning for Hong Kong, which has just started building its own HK$67 billion high-speed rail link to the mainland.

Enthusiasts are fond of saying that High Speed 1 was constructed on time and within cost. But that claim is valid only if you allow for considerable elasticity of both timetable and budget. In fact, the link was completed a full 20 years after it was first proposed, and 14 years after the much longer high-speed link on the French side of the tunnel.

The within budget claim is a fib, too. When the construction contract was finally awarded in 1996, the line was expected to cost £2.8 billion. Costs escalated rapidly, however, and in 1998 the construction consortium was forced to go cap in hand to the British government for a £4 billion bailout to stave off its bankruptcy.

The link finally opened nine years later at a total cost variously estimated at between £5.8 billion and £6.2 billion. Now, three years on and with international passenger numbers running at considerably less than half the original estimates, the British government is hoping to sell the line for between £1.5 billion and £2 billion - just 25 to 30 per cent of what it cost to build.

The lesson for Hong Kong's high-speed rail link is sobering. The Eurostar has been running for more than 15 years now, and over the last 12 months it carried some nine million passengers; a figure which makes the Hong Kong government's forecast for its own rail link of 36 million passengers in the first year of operation look wildly over-optimistic.

The fear now must be that the link to Shenzhen will take as long to build and run as much over budget as High Speed 1, and that it will inflict the same sort of losses on the Hong Kong government as High Speed 1 made for the Brits.

Still, if it does, no doubt Li Ka-shing will be prepared to take it off the government's hands for a tiny fraction of its construction cost.



(謝冠東 翻譯)

往昔,坐高速列車來往英法是一個惡夢。法國段的鐵路非常順暢,然而英國段卻在老舊的路軌上走走停停,全程需時三小時。

不過,在2007年11 月,英國全長109公里之High Speed 1鐵路開通了,問題不再,車程縮短為兩小時許。

然而,英國政府受財困所擾,現時卻把這段鐵路標售,意向價為15億鎊(182億港元)至20億。李嘉誠的長江基建已表示有意競投。這段鐵路今年的收入估計為2.63億鎊,未計折舊和攤銷前的利潤為1.35億鎊。

也許李嘉誠覺得這是難得的商機,但對香港政府來說卻是一個醜陋的警示。香港那段剛動工、造價670億元的高鐵,下場可能十分慘烈。

有些人堅信高鐵一定會準時峻工而且不會超支。曾幾何時,英國的High Speed 1也被人寄予同樣厚望。於1996年,它的預期造價為28億鎊,可是僅僅兩年後,承建商已需要政府出資40億鎊救亡,不然已經破產。到最後完工,其造價估計為58億至62億鎊,亦比法國段的鐵路遲了14年完工。

收益方面,自2007年投入營運,乘客量一直不及預期的一半,即使歐洲之星已行走超過15年,它在最近的12個月乘客土只有900萬人次,香港政府卻預期廣深港高鐵首年將接載3600萬人次,樂觀得瘋狂。

現時令人最擔心的,就是香港高鐵和High Speed 1一樣超支逾倍,延期完工,並為香港政府造成嚴重虧損。當然到其時李嘉誠會準備好,再以大幅折讓價去收購香港的高鐵。

2010/8/19 《南華早報》B10 Monitor專欄,Tom Holland著,謝冠東撮譯,原標題為 “A good deal for Li Ka-shing but an ugly warning for HK”

譯按:高鐵的669元預算並不見曾獲第三方嚴謹評估,同時政府亦無比較不同方案和走線的成本效益。