Virgin Trains and French rail operator SNCF are to jointly bid to run high-speed trains 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 network run by overseas operators. Half of the partnership would be owned by Stagecoach, with SNCF taking a shareholding of 30% and Virgin 20%.

Virgin Trains co-chairman Patrick McCall said: “I’m delighted that SNCF has come on board, and together we will put forward what we hope is the winning bid for the next West Coast – and first HS2 – franchise. We’ve just celebrated 20 years of Virgin Trains and this news puts us in the best possible position to make it 30.”

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%).

Mr McCall said: “We’re thrilled about the prospect of continuing and improving this record of innovation with the UK’s first long-distance high-speed network, as well as with our friends and communities along the West Coast.”

Union leaders have previously condemned the fact that large parts of Britain’s rail network is owned by German, Dutch, French, Belgian and Italian state-owned railways. They claim around 70% of rail routes in this country are wholly or partly owned by foreign states, with profits from fares subsidising operations abroad.

HS2 route
(PA graphic)

SNCF has operated France’s intercity TGV service since 1981 and has the largest fleet of high-speed trains in Europe. It runs around 700 high-speed journeys each day in France and internationally – not including Thalys or Eurostar – at speeds of up to 200mph.

Stagecoach Group chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “This creates a powerful world-class partnership, bringing together the team which has transformed intercity rail travel in the UK with the most recognised and capable high-speed operator in Europe.”

SNCF chairman and chief executive Guillaume Pepy described the bid as “a very exciting development” for the company: “We are world leaders in high speed rail. SNCF has a long-standing commitment of working in partnership with British companies, using their local knowledge and sharing our expertise and experience.”

Virgin, Stagecoach, and SNCF submitted their expression of interest for the West Coast Partnership bid on Monday. They will now prepare for the invitation to tender, which is expected to be issued by the end of the year.

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 went on: “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.”