Virgin & France's SNCF to jointly bid for HS2 franchise

Virgin Trains and French rail operator SNCF will jointly bid to run high-speedtrains on the HS2 network.

The companies announced that they will enter the competition for the West Coast Partnership franchise, which will include services on the existing West Coast route from 2019 and initial HS2 trains between London and Birmingham from 2026.

If the bid is successful it would increase the proportion of Britain's rail franchises run by overseas operators.

Half of the partnership would be owned by Stagecoach, with SNCF taking a shareholding of 30% and Virgin 20%.

FirstGroup and Italian operator Trenitalia announced in January that they will also jointly bid for the franchise.

Virgin Trains has operated long-distance services between London and Scotland on the West Coast line since 1997. It is owned by Virgin (51%) and Stagecoach (49%).

It has introduced a number of transformations on the railways such as tilting trains, automatic compensation for delays and a Netflix-style streaming entertainment system.

Virgin Trains co-chairman Patrick McCall said: "We've just celebrated 20 years of Virgin Trains and this news puts us in the best possible position to make it 30."

Stagecoach Group chief executive Martin Griffiths described the partnership as "world-class" as it combines "the team which has transformed intercity rail travel in the UK with the most recognised and capable high-speed operator in Europe".

SNCF has operated France's intercity TGV service since 1981. It runs around 700 high-speed journeys each day - in France and internationally - at speeds of up to 200mph.

The company's existing involvement in Britain's railways is through its 70% ownership of transport group Keolis. The latter has a 35% stake in Govia, which runs Govia Thameslink Railway - including Southern services - London Midland and Southeastern.

Guillaume Pepy, SNCF chairman and chief executive, pledged to "deliver a successful HS2 service for the UK".

He went on: "We are world leaders in high-speed rail. SNCF has a longstanding commitment of working in partnership with British companies, using their local knowledge and sharing our expertise and experience."

Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Cash claimed the bid is "another land grab on Britain's railways by the French state", with SNCF and Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson viewing the franchise as "a one-way ticket to the bank".

He said: "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."

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), representing train companies and Network Rail, said passengers and the Treasury benefit by rail companies from around the world bringing "new ideas and innovation", with the number of journeys being made doubling over the past 20 years.

Phase 1 of HS2 between London and Birmingham is scheduled to open in December 2026, with a second Y-shaped phase launching in two stages.

Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe will open in 2027, followed by Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds.