Stagecoach goes head-to-head with First for HS2

Stagecoach and Virgin are looking to extend their grip on the west coast rail service, with help from the French state-owned operator SNCF.

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Stagecoach and Virgin are teaming up with France's SNCF to bid for the west coast rail service. Picture: ContributedStagecoach and Virgin are teaming up with France's SNCF to bid for the west coast rail service. Picture: Contributed
Stagecoach and Virgin are teaming up with France's SNCF to bid for the west coast rail service. Picture: Contributed

The two firms, which own the Virgin Trains joint venture, have entered the competition for the new West Coast Partnership franchise, that will encompass services on the existing route from 2019 and initial HS2 trains between London and Birmingham from 2026.

Aberdeen-based transport rival FirstGroup and Italian operator Trenitalia announced in January that they will also jointly bid for the franchise.

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Virgin Trains has operated long-distance services between London and Scotland on the west coast mainline since 1997. The venture is 51 per cent owned by Virgin Rail Group with the remaining 49 per cent held by Perth-based Stagecoach.

It has introduced a number of transformations on the railways such as tilting trains, automatic compensation for delays and a Netflix-style streaming entertainment system.

Under the new bid involving the French, half of the partnership would be owned by Stagecoach, with SNCF taking a shareholding of 30 per cent and Virgin 20 per cent.

Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “This creates a powerful world-class partnership, bringing together the team which has transformed inter-city rail travel in the UK with the most recognised and capable high speed operator in Europe.”

Last month, Stagecoach was dealt a blow when the UK government switched the group’s flagship South West Trains (SWT) operation to a joint venture involving FirstGroup and a Chinese transport operator.

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If the new West Coast Partnership bid is successful it would increase the proportion of Britain’s rail franchises run by overseas operators.

RMT union general secretary Mick Cash claimed the bid was “another land grab on Britain’s railways by the French state”.

He said: “The integrated HS2/West Coast operation has been bought and paid for by the British people and should be run by the British state in the public interest and not by some consortium of speculators looking to make a killing at the taxpayers’ expense.”

SNCF has operated France’s inter-city TGV service since 1981. It runs some 700 high-speed journeys each day – in France and internationally – at speeds of up to 200mph.

The company’s existing involvement in Britain’s railways is through its 70 per cent ownership of transport group Keolis. The latter has a 35 per cent stake in Govia, which runs Govia Thameslink Railway, including Southern services, London Midland and Southeastern.

Guillaume Pepy, SNCF chairman and chief executive, pledged to “deliver a successful HS2 service for the UK”.

He added: “SNCF has a longstanding commitment of working in partnership with British companies.”

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