The government has confirmed a new rail franchise will combine the current InterCity West Coast services with the development and introduction of High Speed 2 (HS2) services.
The new franchise, West Coast Partnership, 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. It will run for the first three to five years of operation of HS2.
Transport minister Andrew Jones said: "We are embarking on a new chapter in our modernisation of the railways and we need world-class expertise to deliver it. 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."
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The first phase of HS2 is due to open in 2026, which will have trains travelling at high speed between London and Birmingham before running on from Birmingham on the existing West Coast main line. It will triple the number of seats at rush hour from 11,000 to 30,000.
Chairman of HS2 Sir David Higgins said: "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."
The new West Coast Partnership franchise will work with the HS2 construction project. In a not-so subtle hint to bidders, the government also said the new operator will need to build on the existing West Coast franchise, "driving up reliability and punctuality".
Virgin, which currently operates the West Coast main line, will lead the bidding, while First Group is expected to be among the new contenders for the service.
Patrick McCall, co-chairman of Virgin Trains, said: “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."
The delivery of the West Coast Partnership will require a new short-term contract of approximately 12 months for the continued operation of services on the West Coast mainline, following the end of the current franchise in 2018.
Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, representing train firms and Network Rail, said: "The rail industry is working hard to ensure HS2 is seamlessly integrated with the existing network as one railway and this decision is crucial to enabling that. It also signals a smooth transition when the new line opens in 2026."
The refranchising of the West Coast line from London to Glasgow was cancelled in late 2012 following the discovery of significant technical flaws in the way the franchise process was conducted. Virgin challenged a decision to award the rail franchise to First Group, saying it was mishandled.