Franchise combines WCML services with HS2 in ‘seamless integration’

A major new franchise will combine existing InterCity West Coast (ICWC) services, currently run by Virgin Trains, with the development and introduction of HS2 services, the DfT has announced today – settling doubts about whether the line would be run by an open access operator.

The new West Coast Partnership (WCP) franchise will see a private operator running services on both the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from 1 April 2019 and designing and running the first high-speed services from 2026. As such, they must demonstrate experience of delivering both conventional and high-speed services and of using cutting-edge technology.

According to the government, the combined franchise, which will run for the first three to five years of HS2’s operation, is “the first step in attracting a world-class bidding group” to enhance WCML services while simultaneously paving the way for HS2.

In an announcement speech today, transport minister Paul Maynard said: “We are embarking on a new chapter in the modernisation of our railways.

“A strong private sector partner is vital now to work with government and as an advocate for passengers on the West Coast, to ensure excellent passenger services in the run up to HS2 introduction, and a smooth transition to the next generation of rail franchising as HS2 becomes the new backbone of Britain’s railways.”

Maynard also clarified that because this is a new type of franchise, it will require “a new kind of approach to bidding” – such as the requirement that the winning bidding group has “transformational expertise across all rail operational and customer service disciplines”.

Namely, the chosen operator will need to build on existing West Coast long-distance, inter-city and cross-border services between England, Scotland and Wales; demonstrate how they will boost punctuality and reliability; and transform passenger satisfaction around fares and ticketing.

Explaining the reasoning behind the combined franchise model, Maynard argued that there are “a number of key interfaces between the delivery of HS2 and the ICWC rail franchise”, with “significant benefits” in bringing the two projects closer together.

These include the fact that West Coast passengers will benefit from new technology before high-speed services are rolled out, and that an experienced operator will be in place at an early stage “to shape service design based on knowledge of the markets and passenger needs”.

“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,” said the rail minister. “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.”

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, added that today’s decision will be crucial to allowing the industry to “seamlessly integrate” HS2 with the existing network.

“It also signals a smooth transition when the new line opens in 2026,” he said. “HS2 will become a very important part of Britain’s railway for decades to come, and will play a huge part in managing the capacity challenge that we face.”

The partner will be expected to work collaboratively with HS2 Ltd to design, launch and operator the high-speed services while managing the timetable recast of the WCML.

Patrick McCall, co-chairman of Virgin Trains, which currently runs the ICWC franchise, argued that 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”.

As expected, the successful bidders, or group of bidders, will need to work closely with the DfT, HS2 Ltd, local transport authorities, Transport Scotland and the Welsh government.

Today’s announcement precedes the expression of interest (EoI) for the partnership, which is due to be published in December. The invitation to tender (ITT) is expected to come in October or November next year.

HS2 shadow operations

Expanding on the fine print, the DfT revealed that the specification for the ‘shadow operator’ element of the combined franchise will be developed in greater detail in the upcoming EoI and ITT.

But it is already expected to include activities such as identifying the markets across the West Coast corridor (both high-speed and conventional services) and developing products and passenger propositions accordingly.

It will also mean the chosen bidder will be able to engage with the HS2 design and build programme, ensuring the operator’s and the passengers’ requirements are fully considered.

The company will also work alongside Network Rail and HS2 Ltd to develop an organisational model for HS2 services, which the DfT hopes will more closely align the incentives between infrastructure management and service operation. This could also pave the way for the future establishment of an integrated railway, the department revealed.

Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd, commented: “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 operator is expected to be innovative and exploit emerging technologies – first tested on the ICWC services and later rolled out on HS2 – capable of delivering “a step change” in passenger experience, as well as lead on consultations and developing service patterns for the period after HS2 kicks off.

Ultimately, the chosen bidder will play a major role in defining the early years of the high-speed line, which is still expected to receive Royal Assent in Parliament. This includes testing and accepting rolling stock; recruiting staff; obtaining regulatory approvals and contracts for operations; testing infrastructure to support the route; and then phasing the introduction and testing of high-speed services.

Structure of franchise

It is currently expected that the ICWC services will be operated until HS2 starts on a partial revenue risk basis. When HS2 services start, the DfT anticipates that the franchise operator would provide integrated ICWC and HS2 services for a further period of around four years on an incentivised management contract basis.

“It is recognised that the role of the ‘shadow operator’ will evolve over time and, as such, flexibility will be built in to the contract to manage this,” the department said. “This is likely to involve some form of review mechanism to enable refinement of the role over time.”

The franchise EoI for the partnership franchise will also contain several mandatory further technical questions, such as the participants’ ability to drive innovation, deliver the shadow operator role and plan, design, develop, operate and mobilise high-speed services in excess of 250km/h.

“Due to the unique nature of the West Coast Partnership proposition the department anticipates that bid vehicles will need to draw upon a wider range of participants and skills than would usually be the case in a rail franchise competition,” the DfT said.

“Participants are encouraged to form bid vehicles in a manner which will enable them to deliver as strongly as possible all the constituent elements of the West Coast Partnership franchise.”

(Top image c. HS2 Ltd)


Huguenot   04/11/2016 at 11:24

I'm not sure that this is really a good idea. The DfT is scared stiff that having two separate operators (HS2 and ICWC) will lead to recriminations and compensation claims because of the expected disruption at Euston. But where does that leave competition for WC business? The competition offered by HS2 was (among other things) supposed to drive up standards and drive down prices on the existing ICWC route. Now there will be a monopoly.

Rupe   04/11/2016 at 12:11

I reckon open access for design & onwards. I see advantages to merging with WCML - but that risks HS2 being just a WCML upgrade. I fear it won't look at other possibilities. For instance, I'd love to see a spur beside the M25 linking HS2 to the Western Rail Link to Heathrow. Even better if trains could then continue on the Heathrow, Central & Abbeywood Crossrail sections to HS1 at Ebbsfleet - forming a Thameslink-style hybrid long distance metro service. This probably won't happen (although an expanded Heathrow might change that), but its a use of HS2 that I think should be considered & passively designed for - one which I suspect a WCML franchise holder would neither consider nor be allowed to pursue.

Chris   04/11/2016 at 16:16

Where are people getting this 'competition' rationale from? HS2 is being built to increase capacity which you only achieve by moving long distance passengers onto HS2.

Nickk   04/11/2016 at 17:50

I can see the fast West Coast trains being decimated to force travellers onto the inevitably more expensive HS2. Inter-city users from Watford, Milton Keynes etc. will only get the London Midland services, although they might be allowed to run through without the dwell at Northampton.

Andrew Gwilt   04/11/2016 at 18:38

Liverpool won't be getting HS2 and HS3 is the proposed high speed rail link that will be built and extended to Hull, York and also to connect with HS2 in Manchester and also HS2 would also extend to Edinburgh and Glasgow via the WCML and ECML northwards. And also a new HS2 link to Heathrow Airport will also be built to boost capacity and to interact with Crossrail and Heathrow Express.

Neil Palmer   04/11/2016 at 21:59

Maybe with one operator we'll see a push for what appears to be a painfully obvious connection from HS2 near Curzon St. to the approach lines to New St from the east, allowing through running from HS2 to places like Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury & Wrexham.

Scottie   05/11/2016 at 06:08

I understood that the whole push behind privatisation of our Rail Network was to improve services and give passengers ( whoops Customers ) more choice ! With a combined franchise for WCML and HS2 where is there any competition ? Surely it would be logical if HS2 were run as a separate franchise from WCML. This would then offer long distance passengers a real and proper choice between services.

Neil Palmer   05/11/2016 at 15:32

Scottie, It's not being built to offer choice, it's being built to increase capacity.

Chris M   06/11/2016 at 04:03

Andrew Gwilt   04/11/2016 at 18:38 (Liverpool won't be getting HS2) Wrong - it will have two direct HS2 trains every hour. (and HS3 is the proposed high speed rail link that will be built and extended to Hull, York and also to connect with HS2 in Manchester) It won't be high speed, no more than 125mph and probably won't go to Hull. (and also HS2 would also extend to Edinburgh and Glasgow via the WCML and ECML northwards) Not yet decided, and it will be at best one or the other, not both. Clever money is on a partial upgrade of the WCML. (And also a new HS2 link to Heathrow Airport will also be built to boost capacity and to interact with Crossrail and Heathrow Express) Completely wrong, the Heathrow line was axed several years ago.

Chris M   06/11/2016 at 04:11

Neil Palmer, you have highlighted the least satisfactory aspect of HS2, A ten minute walk in the elements between New St and Curzon St is a very poor solution. However Wolverhampton can be served via Stafford (change) - or even direct with a reversal if passenger numbers are high enough. We are talking about 75 minutes Wolverhampton to Euston.

Neil Palmer   07/11/2016 at 04:10

Chris - the connection to HS2 just east of New St would also allow through cross country trains to use HS2 from places like Cardiff, Plymouth & Bristol to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Newcastle and on into Scotland.

John Burns   07/11/2016 at 10:24

@Neil Palmer There is no way trains from Cardiff, Plymouth & Bristol will run on HS2. They will not allow Liverpool services to use HS2 to get to Birmingham.

John Burns   07/11/2016 at 10:28

HMG and DfT are saying the WCML and HS2 must compete with each other. That can only happen when all the bottlenecks are removed from the WCML. Also, the same company will be running both. It is hard to see any competition emerging at all. Grayling must think we are all silly.

Neil Palmer   07/11/2016 at 15:09

John - I'm talking High Speed compatible stock for those Cross Country services, not suggesting they allow Voyagers on HS2.

Andrew Gwilt   07/11/2016 at 22:33

Chris M 06/11/2016 at 04:03 Fair enough Chris.

Chris M   08/11/2016 at 04:53

John Burns - "HMG and DfT are saying the WCML and HS2 must compete with each other". Eh???? No John, you have got it totally wrong - as usual!. The government has announced that the WCML train operating company is going to operate HS2 as well, for between three and five years. A TOC does not compete with itself does it? This is a good idea generally - HS2 being built gives some brilliant opportunities to provide regular clockface passenger services on the classic WCML, for example Stafford - Rugby or Coventry to Milton Keynes. With the 125mph tilting express trains removed from the WCML when phase 1 opens in 2026, new services can bring great benefits to local train users in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire.

Tothehills   08/11/2016 at 09:29

Can't help feel that the DfT have elected to go for the "Paris Sud-Est" type solution. In that the WCML will become the traditional line with disconnected stop services and HS2 has all the high-speed services. This will also prevent innovation of service as the WC operator will want to muscle out the ECML operator for services servicing cites north of Leeds/York.

Rupe   08/11/2016 at 09:57

I see advantages to the combined structure, but think it risks designing out passive provision for future service evolution. For instance, places like Buckingham on the HS2 route could do with a station rather than bussing passengers elsewhere (eg. Milton Keynes or Oxford). However, as high speed trains shouldn't serve such stops, and points for slow trains to stop at intermediate stations can compromise high speed operation, the 3rd track that can fit in the HS2 land take should be designed in now to allow for slow, stopping tidal flow services & maintenance provision. A franchise operator will only look at short term company profit & cost - not at longer term best passenger benefit.

John Burns   08/11/2016 at 15:03

@Neil Palmer I was assuming HS2 compatible trains. Liverpool is getting these and will not be running to Birmingham on any HS2 track, while neighbour Manchester gets to Birmingham in minutes. I doubt any compatible trains will be used from Bristol, etc, on any HS2 track.

John Burns   08/11/2016 at 15:05

@Chris M You are wrong as usual. It is being widely reported that the WCML and HS2 must compete with other.

Pedr   08/11/2016 at 22:27

So long as they leave alone my favourite direct service from Milton Keynes to Llandudno Junction....

Moomo   18/11/2016 at 14:38

An integrated timetable is certainly needed, but a single franchise removes any element of competition. Worse still, it will almost certainly result in the legacy services charging higher fares in order to subsidise the bankers' express. I'd be very surprised in Manchester-London journeys end up costing any more than Chester-London, Liverpool-London or Warrington-London, in spite of the massive disparities in service quality.

Colin S   22/11/2016 at 15:25

All this debate about stopping at so many points to provide a service seems to negate the purpose of point-to-point. high speed rail. HS2 would become just another 125mph express train service offering cost reductions. Perhaps it should be, given how short distances are in the UK and the government assurance that 'HS2 was never about speed'. Paris to Lyon, Hamburg to Munich justify HS.

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