The government has laid out details for prospective bidders on the new franchise that will run the InterCity West Coast and HS2 services, with the winner set to be announced in November next year.
The new franchise – the West Coast Partnership – is scheduled to start on 1 April 2019, and the operator will be responsible for services on both the West Coast Main Line from 2019 and running the initial HS2 services in 2026.
Legislation allowing the construction of the first phase of HS2 is scheduled to complete its Parliamentary approval process, with Royal Assent early in 2017, allowing construction of the £55.7bn project to get underway.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: "We need world-class expertise to deliver this new chapter in modernising the railways. We are calling for bidder groups with a blend of skills including operating conventional rail services, high speed rail services, technical innovation and great customer service. We expect to attract highly experienced companies, which ultimately means a better deal for passengers both now and in the future."
The plans to launch a new rail franchise were announced in November last year. Virgin currently operates the West Coast mainline and the co-chairman of Virgin Trains has said there are "huge advantages" to having continuity of service during HS2's critical enabling works.
HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins has said the partnership will be integral to developing "an integrated operating environment for future HS2 services – one that works with the future network".
The Department for Transport said there will be three parts to the partnership – improving today's railway, gearing up for high-speed rail and then opening the new line.