New West Coast rail franchise to run HS2 services
A new rail franchise combining the current InterCity West Coast main line with HS2 high-speed services has been announced by the government.
The new franchise will be called the West Coast Partnership and is scheduled to start on 1 April, 2019.
The operator will be responsible for services on both the West Coast Main Line from 2019 and running the initial HS2 services in 2026.
Construction of the HS2 line is scheduled to begin next year.
It is planned that HS2 will eventually link London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester.
The contract will run for the first three to five years of HS2's operation.
'Backbone of Britain'
The West Coast franchise is currently run by Virgin Trains as a joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin.
Virgin Trains is seeking a new short-term contract of approximately 12 months to continue operating West Coast services following the end of the current franchise in 2018.
The government will invite tenders for the new franchise in October or November next year, setting out what it wants from the winning bidder.
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 new franchise will attract highly experienced companies, who have the right experience, which ultimately means a better deal for passengers - both now and in the future."
It is hoped that HS2 will reduce overcrowding on the existing network and generate economic growth across the country.
Critics say it is too expensive and will damage the environment, but last month the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed the government intended to press ahead with the project.
Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd, the company responsible for building the £55.7bn railway, said: "I have always been clear HS2 will not be a standalone railway but fully integrated with the wider network.
"It will provide a new backbone for our railways, modernising services to better serve towns and cities up and down the country."
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said passengers would be pleased to see a "co-ordinated approach to delivering services".
But he warned: "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."
Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, criticised the decision to award the franchise to a private operator.
"This is a scandalous decision which will hand High Speed 2 over to the very private train operators who have failed so abysmally on the rest of our railway.
"Tens of billions of taxpayers money will have been spent funding High Speed 2, much of which will now be squandered on corporate welfare on an epic scale.
"Other high speed networks in Europe are publicly owned and Britain's should be the same."