The companies are competing for the West Coast Partnership franchise, which will include services on the existing West Coast route from 2019 and initial HS2 trains between London and Birmingham from 2026.
The shortlisted bids are a joint venture between FirstGroup and Italian operator Trenitalia; a joint entry by Stagecoach and Virgin, as well as French rail operator SNCF; and a partnership between Hong Kong firm MTR and China’s Guangshen Railway Company, as well as several sub-contractors.
The Department for Transport claimed the bids feature “UK rail experts”, companies that operate high-speed railways around the world and business with “an excellent track record in customer services”.
First Rail managing director Steve Montgomery said: “We are well positioned with our partner to develop a completely new customer proposition both on the West Coast route, and, through the exciting opportunity this franchise offers, to design and run initial services on the HS2 network.
“We have a strong track record in delivering continued modernisation and investment, alongside industry partners, through our rail operating companies Great Western Railway, TransPennine Express and rail operator of the year, Hull Trains. In August, we will begin operating the South Western rail franchise where we will deliver £1.2 billion of investment and improve the experience for customers, with better trains, more seats and quicker journeys.”
He added: “Our partner Trenitalia is one of Europe’s top railway operators, and manages long-haul services, both on high-speed and conventional lines, as well as regional and metropolitan services. That complements our expertise in running long-distance services such as those found on the West Coast routes.”
• READ MORE: Stagecoach loses SWT franchise to rival FirstGroup
As well as being shortlisted for the West Coast Partnership franchise, Stagecoach is in the running for the South Eastern rail route, which will run from 2018 serving south-east London, Kent, the Medway towns and East Sussex. South Eastern handles 640,000 passenger journeys on 1,900 train services every weekday.
Chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We are pleased that the extensive expertise and strong track record of Stagecoach and our partners has been recognised in the shortlists announced by the government for these two rail franchises, both of which are critical to the country’s economy.
“We look forward to working with local stakeholders on shaping our plans to improve services for customers and deliver significant value to the taxpayer to reinvest in public services.”
The winner of the West Coast Partnership franchise will be expected to work with HS2 Ltd to launch the first services on the £55.7bn high-speed railway.
UK transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “The West Coast Partnership will support growth and better services on the West Coast Main Line while helping to ensure that HS2 becomes the backbone of Britain’s railways.
“This will create more seats for passengers, improve connections between our great cities, free up space on existing rail lines and generate jobs and economic growth throughout the country.
“I look forward to seeing the bidders’ innovative ideas to put passengers at the heart of the railway.”
Phase 1 of HS2 between London and Birmingham is scheduled to open in December 2026, with a second Y-shaped phase launching in two stages.
Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe will open in 2027, followed by Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds.
Legislation for Phase 1 passed its final hurdle in parliament in January, while a bill to give HS2 Ltd the power to build Phase 2a is part of the government’s programme for the next two years.