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JAY Walder readily concedes that putting up a 50-storey apartment building over a train station won't be everyone's answer to funding significant infrastructure development.
As chief executive of Hong Kong's rail operator, Walder routinely oversees such projects. It suits one of the most densely populated cities and biggest users of public transport, but it's not for everyone, Walder admits.
However, that hasn't stopped international cities -- Melbourne and Sydney among them -- beating a path to MTR's door in the quest for workable solutions to the expensive problem of financing and sustaining rail development in some of the world's biggest cities.
Walder has hosted visits by London Mayor Boris Johnson and a Swedish delegation investigating the so-called "rail-plus" model that Hong Kong has used for nearly 40 years to underwrite one of the most efficient and well used metro rail systems in the world. British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne dropped by on his way back to London from the G20 meetings in Sydney last month to see them first hand. MTR is bidding to run the North West Rail Link in Sydney and is already well established in Melbourne.
"There is an awful lot of interest in how one builds a sustainable financial model to build and support railway over the long term," Walder tells The Australian on a visit to Sydney.
"Everywhere around the world it does represent a real strain on government resources to be able to do it. There is no right or wrong answer, but people have certainly paid (attention) to the HK model, which really says that you can combine rail and property, you can capture the benefits that have been associated with railway developments and use those developments to sustain and build the railway over a long time."
It's a message that chimes with governments in Australia, where the need to stimulate other areas of the economy and upgrade creaking infrastructure has inspired a wave of privatisation and a debate about how the jobs and growth-enabling projects can be funded. Last week the Productivity Commission warned about a headlong rush by states to fund new projects and urged them to find more ways to involve the private sector.
Walder says infrastructure's time has come and the company is keen to find new avenues for international expansion by extending relationships it already has in mainland China, Australia, Britain and Sweden.
"No one is suggesting that the HK model could be packaged up and dropped into other cities," Walder says. "(But) I couldn't tell you how many times the word 'adapt' came up in my conversations" with the delegation from Sweden, where MTR runs the metro and has plans for an intercity line linking Gothenburg.
"We have now shown on the transport side that we can take our expertise that we have developed here, work in with local situations -- which may be very different than we have in HK -- and still provide real value in doing that.
"We have shown that we can do that on the transport side and I believe the natural extension of that over time is to say 'how do we bring the property side into that as well'."
MTR has run Melbourne's Metro train service since 2009 and was this month granted a $2.4bn contract to overhaul the tracks, crossing, stations and trains on the Packenham-Cranbourne line, one of Melbourne's busiest.
If Walder gets his way, he and the same partners he has in Melbourne -- UGL and the Leighton-owned John Holland Constructions -- will also be steering a multi-billion-dollar contract to install, maintain and operate NSW's first major privately run train service, the North West Rail link.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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