High Speed 2 gathers pace

November 4 was a significant day for high-speed rail in the UK, as the Government announced the West Coast Partnership (WCP), which brings together the operation of the Intercity West Coast (ICWC) franchise services (currently run by Virgin Trains West Coast) and the design, mobilisation and initial operation of High Speed 2 (HS2) passenger services.

Currently, ICWC operates Pendolinos from London Euston to the West Midlands, the North West and Scotland, and diesels to North Wales.

The current ICWC franchise will be replaced by the WCP, which will run services on the West Coast Main Line, as it does now. The new franchisee - ‘the shadow operator’ - will also design and run the initial services on HS2 Phase One between London and Birmingham, when it opens in 2026. 

Royal Assent is expected early next year for HS2, with construction also starting next year. 

The WCP franchise will run for the first three to five years of HS2 operation. In its announcement, the Government stated it was “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.” When HS2 opens, the number of seats at rush hour will almost treble, from current figures of 11,000, to around 30,000.

Transport Minister Andrew Jones said: “We are embarking on a new chapter in the modernisation of our railways and we need the best expertise to deliver it.”

He adds that HS2 will be the backbone of Britain’s railways. It will be about capacity, he argues, stating that seats will be freed up on the WCML. It’s worth remembering that the railway south of Rugby is the busiest in Europe, and so trying to add any sort of capacity there is nigh on impossible. 

Jones explains the situation: “By combining the franchises 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 is about reducing overcrowding on the existing railway. Passenger numbers have more than doubled - in 1995 the network carried 800 million people. This year, it’s estimated it will have carried 1.7 billion. This is on a largely Victorian network and so space, and therefore capacity, is at a premium.

But HS2 is about more than just capacity; it is about generating economic growth up and down the country. 

Chairman of HS2 Ltd Sir David Higgins says: “This is a real opportunity to ensure HS2 services complement and enhance existing ones. I have always been clear that 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.”

Higgins states that by introducing the WCP franchise, it will enable a strong private sector partner to work with Government. Higgins believes that the partner must: “combine experience of delivering both conventional and high-speed railway operations, and transform customer service through the use of new technology.”

It also planned that the WCP franchise will introduce new technologies on the WCML operations before HS2 opens. 

When it does, the majority of the WCP intercity trains will run on the new railway, which will, in turn, enable more commuter trains to run on the WCML.

WCP’s operator must work with local transport authorities, as well as Transport Scotland and the Welsh Government, to ensure that service level requirements are met.   

The next stage now involves companies registering formal expressions of interest (EoI) for WCP. Who these companies are will be announced in December, followed by the publication of the Invitation to Tender (ITT), which the Government expects to issue in October or November next year. The new franchise is scheduled to start on April 1 2019.

However, a new short-term, 12-month contract of work will also be required for the interim operation of ICWC services, as the current franchise ends in March 2018.

In the longer term, it is expected that the WCP franchisee will operate integrated ICWC and HS2 services for around four years on an incentivised management contract basis. 

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