Political storm brewing over new HS2 franchise

Artist impression of  HS2
Artist impression of HS2
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A political row is brewing over the future operation of high speed services to the North, as the Government unveils a new franchise to oversee the route

The new West Coast Partnership will combine the management of the HS2 network, with control of the existing Virgin-run West Coast service.

Ministers claim the move will attract “world-class” companies to bid for the line, phase one of which opens in 2026.

But Labour and transport unions have opposed the measure, arguing the service must remain in public ownership if it is to deliver value for taxpayers.

“HS2 should be run in the public sector, as a public service,” said shadow transport minister Andy McDonald.

“If we are going to invest billions of taxpayers’ money into HS2, it is right that the revenues go back to the Exchequer and not straight into the hands of subsidy dependent train operating companies.

“Considering the concerns over the cost of HS2, the Government should be looking to get the best deal for the UK rather than the shareholders of private train companies or taxpayers in Germany, France or Holland.

“A future Labour Government would bring any such franchise back within public operation at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The new franchise operator 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.

Announcing the move yesterday, transport minister Andrew Jones said it marked “the first step in attracting a world-class bidding group” to manage the line.

“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,” he said.

“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 announcement was welcomed by the independent watchdog Transport Focus, which said passengers would be pleased to see a “co-ordinated approach to delivering services”.

Chief executive Anthony Smith said his organisation will be working with all bidders “to share our detailed work on what current West Coast and future HS2 passengers want”.

Chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins, also welcomed the move, describing it as “a real opportunity to ensure HS2 services complement and enhance existing ones”.

But the head of the RMT union, Mick Cash, labeled it a “scandalous decision” which will put the service in the hands of “the very private train operators who have failed so abysmally on the rest of our railway”.

“Tens of billions of taxpayers money will have been spent funding High Speed 2, much of which will now be squandered on corporate welfare on an epic scale,” he said.

“Other high speed networks in Europe are publicly owned and Britain’s should be the same.”

The first phase of HS2 between London and Birmingham id due to open in December 2026.

An invitation to tender for the new franchise will be issued by the DfT in October or November next year, to begin on April 1, 2019.