West Coast main line franchise announced as HS2 operator

HS2 will be operated by the West Coast Main Line Partnership. Picture: Contributed
HS2 will be operated by the West Coast Main Line Partnership. Picture: Contributed
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HS2 high-speed rail services will be run by the same operator as the West Coast main line, the UK Government announced today.

HS2 trains will be run by the same operator as the west coast main line, the UK Government has announced.

The new franchise - the West Coast Partnership - will cover trains on the Glasgow-London west coast route from 2019 and a new HS2 fleet at the start of the new high-speed route between London and the West Midlands from 2026.

The contract is expected to run for ten to 12 years, which would include the first three to five years of HS2.

The Competition and Markets Authority declined to say whether the move could conflict with its plans for greater competition between train operators.

Passenger watchdog Transport Focus said the reduced competition meant protecting travellers from price hikes must be a priority.

HS2 trains will run on current tracks as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh, but such journeys will be no quicker than current trains.

Transport Minister Andrew Jones said: “HS2 will be the backbone of Britain’s railways, creating more seats for passengers on the west coast and increasing capacity on the rest of the network.

“By combining the franchise, we are ensuring we get the right people on board at an early stage to design and manage the running of both services in the transition stage.”

The west coast main line is currently operated by Virgin Trains - a joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin - which is expected to bid.

Co-chairman Patrick McCall said: “There are clearly huge advantages in having continuity of service during HS2’s critical enabling works – both up to the start of the new franchise in 2019 and beyond.”

Ministers hope HS2 will reduce overcrowding on the existing network and generate economic growth across the country.

Phase one, due to open in December 2026, will see trains travel at high speed between London and Birmingham before running on from Birmingham on the existing west coast line to Scotland, with services to Glasgow and Edinburgh diverging at Carstairs.

Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd, the company responsible for building the £55.7 billion railway, said the franchise announcement meant the high-speed trains can “complement and enhance” existing ones.

He said: “I have always been clear HS2 will not be a standalone railway, but fully integrated with the wider network.

“Bringing on board a new partner to work with HS2 Ltd now will help ensure we are working towards the same goal.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said passengers would be pleased to see a “co-ordinated approach to delivering services.

“With a franchise of this size, it is even more critical that passengers are kept at the very heart of it, and that their satisfaction is built into delivery targets.”

However, he added: “Less competition could too easily lead to premium pricing, so passenger protection will have to be a priority.

“We will now be working with all bidders to share our detailed work on what current West Coast and future HS2 passengers want.”

Virgin Trains will be awarded a new short-term contract of around a year to continue operating West Coast services following the end of the current franchise in 2018.

Potential bidders will be sought next month, with a short list invited to bid next October or November and franchise scheduled to begin on 1 April 2019.

The Government said the operator must enhance West Coast services by boosting reliability and punctuality, as well as improving connections to better serve towns and cities on the franchise’s routes from London to Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It will be expected to collaborate with HS2 Ltd to design, launch and operate the initial HS2 services and deliver the transition of the West Coast timetable as it is revised to take advantage of the extra capacity provided by HS2.

HS2 is expected to nearly triple the number of seats during rush-hour from 11,000 to around 30,000.