It would appear that the recent announcement on the planned West Coast Main Line/HS2 joint franchise has left Virgin Trains - current operator on the West Coast route - wondering what happens next.
Last week (November 4th 2016) the Department for Transport (DfT) announced that the new West Coast Main Line franchise would also include preparation for, and initial operation of High Speed 2 (HS2) services. The DfT said the franchise would run for between three and five years after the start of initial HS2 services in 2026.
But the existing West Coast franchise, which has already been extended, is due to finish im March 2018.
That means that there will be a twelve month gap. But despite the announcement by the DfT, Steven Knight Media understands that no steer on what happens next has been communicated to current West Coast incumbent Virgin Trains. My thought is that a Management Contract/Direct Award will follow but some senior industry officials are even suggesting the DfT may put in its own team for 12 months operating the West Coast through its own Directly Operated Railways unit. I personally think that is unlikely.
If Virgin does indeed remain in charge of the West Coast operation through until 2019 it will be able to celebrate 21 years of West Coast rail operation, having taken over the route in March 1997.
Virgin also has experience of project management of big schemes, although most of the Major Projects team who developed and oversaw the transformation of the route are no longer with the business. That must put it in a good place when bidding for the West Coast Partnership franchise gets underway. But beyond bidding it is into the unknown. Virgin could indeed welcome in the dawn of a new era of West Coast/HS2 rail operation or it could see itself thrown off the route. Interesting times ahead.
The government says the new West Coast franchise will combine the current InterCity West Coast services with the development and introduction of High Speed 2 services.
The new franchise - the West Coast Partnership - will be responsible for services on both the West Coast Main Line from 2019 and designing and running the initial high speed services from 2026.
The franchise, which will run for the first three to five years of operation of HS2, is the first step in attracting a world-class bidding group to develop and enhance the service for West Coast passengers and pave the way for the introduction of HS2 services in the future.
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. 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.
“HS2, Britain’s new railway, will reduce crowding on the existing network and generate economic growth up and down the country. Phase One due to open in 2026, will see trains travel at high speed between London and Birmingham before running on from Birmingham on the existing West Coast Main Line, setting a new benchmark in passenger experience along this route”.
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, modernising services to better serve towns and cities up and down the country.
“Bringing on board a new partner to work with HS2 Ltd now will help ensure we are working towards the same goal.
“The new West Coast Partnership franchise will provide a strong private sector partner to work with the government, a partner who must combine experience of delivering both conventional and high speed railway operations, transforming customer service through the use of cutting-edge technology.
“The franchise will deliver excellent services for West Coast passengers while working collaboratively with the HS2 construction project to develop the best solution for passengers now and in the future”.
The DfT says that the new operator will need to build on the existing West Coast franchise to deliver a service which puts the needs of passengers first - driving up reliability and punctuality and improving connections to better serve towns and cities along the route. West Coast passengers will also see benefits before the introduction of HS2 passenger services through the early introduction of new technology being developed for this new railway.
The partnership approach means the winning bidder will collaborate with HS2 Ltd to design, launch and operate the initial HS2 services and deliver the transition of the timetable on the West Coast Main Line as it is revised to take advantage of the extra capacity provided by HS2.
“The completion of the first phase of HS2 will nearly triple the number of seats at rush hour from 11,000 to around 30,000. The majority of intercity trains will run on the high speed network, allowing more commuter services to run on the West Coast line.
The new operator will work closely with local transport authorities, Transport Scotland and the Welsh government to give passengers the better experience they demand from the West Coast Main Line.
The formal expression of interest (EoI) for the West Coast Partnership is due to be published in December 2016, followed by the invitation to tender (ITT) in October or November 2017, with the new franchise scheduled to start 1 April 2019.
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.