HS2 will be run under a combined franchise with the current Intercity West Coast service for its first years of operation ministers have confirmed, prompting anger from Labour.
The new West Coast Partnership franchise will be responsible for services on both the West Coast Main Line from 2019 and for designing and running the initial high speed services from 2026.
The franchise will cover the first 3 to 5 years of HS2 after Phase One of the line opens in 2026, connecting London and Birmingham before running on from Birmingham on the existing West Coast Main Line.
Following the end of the current West Coast franchise in 2018, 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.
A Department for Transport spokesman could not confirm whether this would be provided through a direct award to Virgin Trains, which currently runs the line as a joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin.
'The situation will be confirmed following negotiations. We are keeping our options open,' he said.
Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s shadow transport secretary said: ‘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.
'HS2 should be run in the public sector, as a public service. 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.'
He added: ‘A future Labour Government would bring any such franchise back within public operation at the earliest possible opportunity.’
The formal expression of interest for the West Coast Partnership is due in December 2016, followed by the invitation to tender (ITT) in the autumn of 2017. The new franchise is scheduled to start 1 April 2019.
Transport minister Andrew Jones 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 new franchise will attract highly experienced companies, who have the right experience, which ultimately means a better deal for passengers - both now and in the future.’
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said it was ‘a scandalous decision’ from ministers, which will ‘hand High Speed 2 over to the very private train operators who have failed so abysmally on the rest of our railway’.