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Virgin and Stagecoach join with SNCF on HS2 WCP franchise bid

Operators Virgin Trains and Stagecoach have today announced that they will launch a joint bid for the West Coast Partnership (WCP) HS2 franchise alongside state-owned French rail company SNCF.

The franchise will run from 2019 and will include the first few years of operation of HS2, meaning the chosen bidders will be responsible for designing the first high-speed services from 2026. As such, they must demonstrate experience of delivering both conventional and high-speed services.

The three companies have announced that they submitted an expression of interest to HS2 Ltd yesterday and are already working on their tender to run the huge project. The shareholding for the bid is split between 50% for Stagecoach, 30% for SNCF and 20% for Virgin.

Patrick McCall, Virgin Trains co-chairman, said he was delighted that SNCF had come on board and would hopefully help create the winning bid for the WCP franchise.

“We’ve just celebrated 20 years of Virgin Trains and this news puts us in the best possible position to make it 30,” said McCall.

“We’ve always focused on customers throughout our history, introducing many UK firsts such as tilting trains, automatic compensation for delays, m-Ticketing and free films and TV on-board via our BEAM service.

“We’re thrilled about the prospect of continuing and improving this record of innovation with the UK’s first long distance high-speed network, as well as with our friends and communities along the West Coast.”

HS2 Ltd has asked that bidders bring experience with high-speed rail to the table, something that SNCF can boast in spades. The company operates the largest fleet of high-speed trains in Europe (almost 430 trainsets), and also runs around 700 high-speed rail journeys every day in France and internationally at speeds of up to 320km/h.

Additionally, since 1981, SNCF has run the TGV service in France and also started a low-cost high-speed service, called Ouigo, in 2013. It’s estimated that the company’s high-speed wing recorded a turnover of around €7.5bn in 2016.

SNCF chairman and CEO Guillaume Pepy expressed his excitement at joining the HS2 bid: “SNCF has a long-standing commitment of working in partnership with British companies, using their local knowledge and sharing our expertise and experience.

“Today, we are delighted to announce this next step in our commitment to UK rail, working with partners who have demonstrated their own expertise in long distance rail services and are highly regarded in the industry.”

Pepy added that SNCP appreciated having Stagecoach’s widespread expertise across a variety of transport modes as well as Virgin’s “fantastic” reputation for customer experience.

And Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Stagecoach Group, added: “This creates a powerful world-class partnership, bringing together the team which has transformed inter-city rail travel in the UK with the most recognised and capable high-speed operator in Europe.”

The Stagecoach CEO also explained how the company appreciated the role HS2 had to play in delivering improvements and creating space on the UK to boost the country’s communities and economy.

“Together, we have a very strong track record of working effectively with other rail partners and infrastructure providers, as well as using cutting-edge technology to achieve a step change in customer service,” concluded Griffiths.

However, not everyone in the industry was pleased to hear of the French company’s interest in getting involved with the UK rail network.

Union RMT – which is currently locked in a bitter dispute with a number of rail operators, including Virgin –  has stated that the bid is further proof of the French state making a “landgrab” for the franchise.

General secretary Mick Cash said: “This is yet another land grab on Britain's railways by the French state with SNCF and Richard Branson both realising that this new franchise will be a one-way ticket to the bank for whoever comes out on top in this latest UK rail lottery.

“The integrated HS2/West Coast operation has been bought and paid for by the British people and should be run by the British state in the public interest and not by some consortium of speculators looking to make a killing at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Today’s news comes almost five months after FirstGroup and Trenitalia announced they would too be submitting joint bids for both the new East Midlands and WCP franchises.

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Stephen Leary   25/04/2017 at 10:51

We will be left with a + £38bn debt from building HS2 which could have been spent on the NHS. Meanwhile if any foreign state rail company becomes a part franchise holder for HS2 it's their NHS which could benefit from any profits from operating the franchise.

Lee   25/04/2017 at 11:58

Ugh, spare me the "could have spent it on the NHS" stock response to anything you disagree with. If you took that argument to its logical conclusion, you'd have more hospitals than you knew what to do with and the rest of the country would be a derelict wasteland. We need this project and we need it now. The WCML is absolutely jammed full of overcrowded trains and demand is increasing all the time. Given that Brexit is likely to be a disaster, I'm glad there's European interest in the project. SNCF know what they're doing and will help this project succeed. We live in a global, connected world, and there's plenty of UK involvement in overseas rail networks.

Anon   25/04/2017 at 12:03

No, the money would not have been spent on the NHS, infrastructure development has a different budget. Allocation for the NHS can only be increased if the economy expands, and HS2 will achieve the necessary economic stimulus for this to be possible.

Stephen Leary   25/04/2017 at 12:07

It's not my main point that HS2 monies could have been spent on the NHS. It's more complicated than that. Firstly in order to attracts bids for the franchise, the amount of cash generated will never be enough to pay off the debt. Secondly any state rail company who is part of a successful bid (and over 50% of current franchise holders include such partners or are themselves holders of the franchise) will be able to repatriate their profits - maybe to help finance their health care system. Hence the British Taxpayer can end helping to pay for French healthcare costs for example. Is that fair?

CAMBTRACK   25/04/2017 at 12:16

Well said Lee: the WCML is constrained by 125mph trains rapidly catching up stopping trains, and freights (max speed 75mph). Thus capacity is at a premium. HS2 will go someway at admittedly great expense to alleviate this by greatly reducing the number of 125s running, and for that matter, ultimately too on the East Coast Main Line when fast services for Leeds and Edinburgh transfer to HS2. And make no mistake, the income from HS2 journeys will gradually repay the building price, and continue to do so.

Lucan   25/04/2017 at 12:29

Yes we need HS2, however, to not go MagLev to reduce time and increase speed is just shortsighted. Yes MagLev is very expensive to build but it is so much cheaper to maintain per Km less moving parts no friction as such wear & Tear is reduced to a minimum. I feel it is a missed opportunity as MagLev would of reduced the need for internal flights. That said I am happy to see such investment in Transport infrastructure as we have not built a brand new railway since the 19th century.

Dave H   25/04/2017 at 12:38

Could you ever imagine a British company being given the opportunity to bid for a French railway or any other major infrastructure project? By the way that goes for most other EU countries. The sooner we are out the better.

Lee   25/04/2017 at 13:09

Sorry to burst your anti-EU bubble, but British companies already have their fingers in the European transport pie. Try this for starters...

J, Leicester   25/04/2017 at 13:10

Lucan, the prices for HS2 are insane enough as it is, without diving headfirst into using technology which, to date, has been hamstrung by its ridiculous construction and operating costs. The longest commercial Maglev route in the world, and the only one operating at high speeds, is the Shanghai Maglev, clocking in at 18 miles long. It suffers huge annual losses in the region of 65 million and is considered a white elephant. Alternatively, there's the Chuuo Shinkansen in Japan, which won't be operating until 2045 at the earliest and for which cost projections have already skyrocketed to over 11 trillion yen (£77 billion). Maglev is simply unproven as a viable high speed rail option. The country isn't massive. If we must proceed with HS2, Maglev is unneccesary when conventional HS rail would still provide notable journey time increases.

Lee   25/04/2017 at 13:12

Maglev is also completely incompatible with existing rail technology. You'd have to change trains to reach destinations off the network. HS2 trains will run over the classic network too, spreading the benefits to other areas as soon as the first bit opens.

Pete   25/04/2017 at 13:31

HS2 is actually far better value for money than any other option for increasing rail capacity. It will affect existing classic lines far less whilst being built reducing delays, and drastically reduces journey times not just to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham etc. but also to cities further north such as Liverpool, Newcastle etc. as some trains will continue beyond HS2 to these other destinations. The overall cost spread over the full term of the project is quite reasonable and affordable, when taking everything into consideration, such as the disruption and delays to existing services when classic lines are upgraded for example. One problem with SNCF becoming involved would be that they might prefer to use Alstom High Speed trains in preference to other manufacturers, as it is a French company. When Eurostar, also now a majority SNCF owned company, decided to replace the majority of the first fleet of Eurostar Alstom trains with Siemens trains from Germany there were questions asked in the French Parliament and pressure was put on Eurostar to order newer Alstom trains instead. Let's hope that the BEST trains for the job are ordered whichever country they come from. It would be nice to think that the UK could once again have their own train manufacturing business but that is highly unlikely for many reasons.

J, Leicester   25/04/2017 at 15:56

Lee makes a good point - provided the HS trains ordered are capable of fitting to the existing loading gauge. Perhaps there would be scope to order stock both for purely HS services, and others able to operate on both HS and conventional lines (a la the Javelin 395s?) At least we only have loading gauges to worry about. Spare a thought for the Spanish - they've essentially had to build an entire second network from scratch to allow AVE trains to run across the border into France and beyond!

Paul K   25/04/2017 at 17:16

Let us not be constrained by Victorian UK loading gauge and be squashed in as in the Voyagers. For HS2 we should have the space the comfort similar to Eurostar so Berne gauge for HS2 is a must. UK gauge trains could run on the line but I would not build any specifically for HS2. I also agree that the involvement of SNCF would probably mean that they would like try to tie Alstom into the package. So agree there would need to be a proper competition for the best train for the job.

Hands   25/04/2017 at 17:49

If SNCF introduce Eurostar train sets then an opportunity will be presented. The speedy acceleration of modern EMUs such as the Class 395 Javelins allow them to run in between the Eurostar services so passing loops in additional stations to allow HS2 units through would allow much more intensive use of the HS2 tracks and provide more connectivity without slowing the long distance trains.

Jimbo   25/04/2017 at 20:24

After being on rail trips on the continent, I wouldn't rate SNCF as a useful partner. If Swiss rail, SBB, wanted to get involved, that would be a lot more interesting as they know how to run a railway properly.

Mikeyb   26/04/2017 at 18:03

@ Dave H. As Lee comments, National Express operate services in both Germany and Spain. Also,First Group used to run services in (I think Denmark) and, prior to becoming part of DB, Arriva were heavily involved in Europe. On the freight side, Freightliner operate services in Poland. However, I would agree that France is a totally different "kettle of fish" as the French Government has protectionist policies with regard to public transport and they only allow domestic companies to operate services.

Andrew Gwilt   27/04/2017 at 08:22

Could this mean that SNCF, SNCB and ICE could operate continental European services from Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland once HS2 has been completed.

Pwt   27/04/2017 at 09:31

DB (with their ICE trains) are already struggling to make a business case for running their trains into London (where the infrastructure already exists). Running beyond London can only be a dream at this time. I don't believe that SNCB operate any international trains in their own right.

Turbostar   30/04/2017 at 10:09

Andrew, as there are no plans to link HS2 to HS1 I very much doubt there will any new services to the rest of the UK.

Jasmin   01/05/2017 at 14:28

The idea that money from HS2 would go into the NHS is as ridiculous, it's a totally different budget and arm of government. However, I do have concerns over HS2, especially in light of the issues about cost with the GWML electrification. Once again I think there are issues with over engineering, and a degree of wishful thinking regarding costs and potential issues. I think there's several issues. 1. Excessive tunnelling. Compared to HSR lines in far more mountainous terrain (i.e. the Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona line) a far high percentage of the line is in tunnel, even when patently un-needed. 2. Tunnelling under London. Tunnelling through London to Paddington adds a host of complexities and challenges. Taking over the near derelict Acton to Northolt line would remove the need for much of this work. 3. Speed obsession. Designing the line for 400km/h operation is ridiculous over engineering for a route on a fairly small island, especially as there is no firm plans for operating trains over 320kmh. Personally, I think it would be better splitting the budget over several regional projects to improve commuter and short haul links with higher passenger numbers - i.e. commuter rail in the West Mids (electrify the Solihull-Birmigham-Kiddsterminster, Birmingham-Rugeley and Bimringham-Whitlocks End lines, extend the Midland Metro to Walsall and Brownhills), Liverpool (re-open some surburban lines through northern Liverpool as part of the Merseyrail network), electrification of the WYmetro services etc., and run more frequent fast trains between city pairs (i.e. Liverpool-Manchester, Manchester-Leeds, Glasgow-Edinburgh), as well as reinstating some of the "missing links" in the network such as Uckfield-Lewes and the full stretch of the Varsity line.

J, Leicester   04/05/2017 at 11:37

Jasmin, you can add the Burton-Leicester route to that list - a potentially lucrative artery that has been criminally overlooked for decades and allowed to deteriotate. I'm surprised we've not heard anything about it with local elections happening today, to be honest - the incumbents at Leicestershire County Council love talking up the prospects of reopening during campaigning, only to then bat them down once elected with inherently biased reports citing prohibitive upgrade costs. As far as HS2 is concerned, there was some lip service around the 2015 election about recouping costs from the re-routing around East Midlands Airport to fund reconstruction, but those "savings" have now disappeared into the ether. Apparently, "landslides" along the route would cost up to £100 million to fix to allow current TSRs to be removed and the route to be suitably upgraded. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but that seems an absurd figure when the Severn Valley was able to fix miles of damage, and numerous fully washed-away sections of embankment, for £2 million a few years back with Network Rail doing the work to mainline standards. Those worth their salt know it's a trumped-up figure to deflect the council's responsibility to pull its weight in funding a project it would have to provide a nominal subsidy towards. As with everything else on the network, and as alluded to in this month's Railway Magazine (do forgive me for mentioning a rival publication!), over-engineering and a negative approach to works and operations in this country is killing off good railway projects and ballooning the costs of those with government backing - such as HS2 itself. Oh, to go back to the days of railway-mania, when you could plan your route and get it built within a matter of a few years... routes that, if I may add, still operate and are structurally sound 150 years later...

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