Li eyes bid for British high-speed rail firm

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 August, 2010, 12:00am

Just weeks after announcing a multibillion-pound deal to buy British electricity networks, Li Ka-shing has turned his attention to the country's railways.

Hong Kong's richest man is interested in buying the concession to HS1, the only dedicated high-speed railway in Britain, from the debt-burdened British government for up to GBP2 billion (HK$24.27 billion).

The HS1 is a 109km railway from London to the Channel Tunnel, connecting to the high-speed rail network of continental Europe. The rail link, which runs at 230km/h to 300km/h, started operation in November 2007.

HS1, one of the largest British civil engineering projects, underwent periods of financial difficulties and was taken over by the government last year. Late last year, then prime minister Gordon Brown announced the sale of several state-owned assets including HS1 to reduce the budget deficit. In June, HS1 put up for sale a concession to own the rail link on a leasehold basis for 30 years.

'Li Ka-shing has expressed interest in bidding for the concession,' a person close to the bidding process said. So far, four to six consortia are through to the first round of bidding.

Companies in the consortia competing against Li for HS1 include Goldman Sachs and Eurotunnel, Morgan Stanley and Canadian pension funds, Reuters reported.

The winning bidder will be announced by the end of this year, said a HS1 spokesman, who declined to comment on whether Li is a potential bidder.

'We estimate the final price for the concession to be in the upper end of the range of GBP1.5 billion to GBP2 billion,' the HS1 spokesman said. This is well below the railway's construction cost of GBP5.8 billion as stated by HS1.

Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, is in advanced negotiations to operate high-speed train services on HS1 in addition to the two existing train operators, Eurostar and Southeastern High Speed Domestic, the HS1 spokesman said. 'It will have a positive effect on the sale price. Deutsche Bahn will pay HS1. Whoever owns HS1 will benefit.'

Presumably, Li's vehicle for acquiring HS1 would be his Hong Kong-listed infrastructure firm, Cheung Kong Infrastructure (CKI).

If CKI acquires HS1, the deal should be earnings accretive, said Pierre Lau, Citi head of Asia Pacific utilities research. 'Usually CKI buys assets for double-digit returns. Given this is a railway, the revenue should be stable. It fits CKI's strategy to focus on acquiring infrastructure assets in developed countries with stable returns.'

In the past, CKI has invested in infrastructure in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which share similar regulatory regimes, Lau said.

Last month, CKI emerged as the exclusive bidder to acquire the British electricity networks of EDF Energy, a unit of French energy giant EDF, for GBP5.8 billion, which would be Li's biggest overseas acquisition if completed.