Published: 5th November 2016
Government announces another West Coast Main Line franchise extension for Virgin and prepares to let the HS2 franchise.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that the West Coast Mainline (WCML) intercity franchise operator will also operate the first trains on High Speed 2 (HS2) from 2026. And whoever is awarded the franchise will have to develop and introduce trains on High Speed 2.
The new franchise to be known as the West Coast Partnership (WCP), will operate intercity services from 2019 on the WCML and will also develop, design and then operate the initial high speed services from 2026 on HS2.
The franchise winner will operate HS2 services for three to five years and by having the same company running all services will allow easier integration of services between the two lines. Virgin has been awarded a direct award for another year to enable the WCP to be launched, their current extension expires in March 2018.
What was not mentioned in the announcement is that it will of course mean that the franchise winner will not be able to make tens of millions of pounds in compensation for what is known as Schedule 4 and 8 in Track Access Agreements from service disruption due to engineering work joining up the two lines and other upgrades. During the long WCML upgrade, Virgin collected well over £100million contractual compensation for delays and cancellations.
Transport minister Andrew Jones said: We are embarking on a new chapter in our modernisation of the railways and we need world-class expertise to deliver it. 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. HS2 will reduce crowding on the existing network and is due to open in 2026 with trains running at high speed between London, Old Oak Common and Birmingham and northwards via existing lines.
Chairman of HS2 Ltd Sir David Higgins said: This is a real opportunity to ensure HS2 services complement and enhance existing ones. 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 and bringing on board a new partner to work with HS2 Ltd now will help ensure we are working towards the same goal.
The franchise will work collaboratively with the HS2 construction project to develop the best solution for passengers now and in the future and build on the existing West Coast franchise to deliver a service which puts the needs of passengers first.
This sensible approach means the winning bidder will collaborate with HS2 Ltd to design, launch and operate the initial HS2 services as well as deliver the transition of the timetable on the West Coast Main Line as it is revised to merge with HS2 services at places like Litchfield and Crewe. They will also work closely with local transport authorities, Transport Scotland and the Welsh government.
The formal expression of interest for the WCP will be published next month, the invitation to tender within 12 months with the new franchise scheduled to start 1 April 2019.
The delivery of the West Coast Partnership will require a new short term contract of approximately 12 months for the continued operation of services on the West Coast Mainline, following the end of the current franchise in 2018.
Virgin as ever have spun the announcement by saying that in partnership with Stagecoach, have almost tripled passenger numbers in 20 years “thanks to a relentless focus on customer service and satisfaction.” But of course it was the 125mph WCML upgrade that has also brought higher passenger numbers and Virgin received £300 million taxpayers’ compensation during the upgrade when it was decided not to increase the speed to 140mph.
Patrick McCall, co-chairman of Virgin Trains, 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.
The Rail Freight Group’s Maggie Simpson, executive director said; ‘This is a pragmatic move by Government for developing high speed passenger services, but makes no reference to how the needs of other network users will be included. With 95% of today’s intermodal services using the West Coast at some point, and strong prospects of future growth in many markets it is imperative that capacity for freight is fully included in network planning.
Government needs to clarify how it expects the Partnership to work with freight operators and their customers in building a shared future on this vital artery.’