A Hong Kong-based rail firm is among eight separate parent companies granted pre-qualified bidder status by the government for three new railway franchises.
MTR, which owns and operates the mass-transit overground and underground railway in the former British colony and parts of mainland China is on the shortlist for the West Midlands rail franchise.
If awarded the contract, it would represent the first project for MTR outside of China or the special administrative region since it began operations in 1979.
The other two new franchises are New Cross Country and West Midlands, with the three contracts replacing four older business divisions.
Also on the shortlist for the transport charters are Arriva, First Group, Virgin Rail, National Express and Stagecoach.
Arriva, First and Virgin have all been approved to submit bids for the New Cross Country franchise, while the East Midlands contract is being contested by Stagecoach and National Express, as well as additional bids from Arriva and First.
As well as MTR, Govia and a joint venture between Serco and NedRailways are in the running for the West Midlands franchise.
All the companies had replied to a Department of Transport (DfT) advert in June, with detailed bids having to be submitted in the coming months.
The closing date for bids is February 2007, with the eventual winners announced in the summer. The three new franchises will begin on November 11th 2007, lasting until at least 2015.
Commenting on today's government announcement, the chief executive of Virgin Rail, Tony Collins, said: "Our bid team will now begin the task of preparing our detailed submission based on the DfT's specification that we trust will result in Virgin's operation of this exciting new franchise from next November."
Ian Dobbs, chief executive of Stagecoach's rail division, added: "The East Midlands franchise is an excellent opportunity to expand our rail portfolio by delivering improved services for passengers in a region of the UK with significant growth potential."