VIRGIN, STAGECOACH and French operator SNCF have formed a joint venture to bid for the new West Coast Partnership franchise.

The franchise, due to start in April 2019, will include the operation of services on the West Coast main line and of the first three to five years of HS2 from 2026. The winning bidder will also play a key role in the preparation for HS2, including planning of services and the interior design of the trains.

The shareholding for the joint venture will be 50% Stagecoach, 30% SNCF and 20% Virgin. The current Virgin Trains operation on the West Coast main line is a 51:49 partnership between Virgin and Stagecoach, while Stagecoach holds the majority 90% stake in Virgin Trains East Coast. The venture has submitted an expression of interest for WCP, and says it will now prepare for the release of the Invitation to Tender, planned for later this year.

The Department for Transport has specified that all bidders for WCP will need to have relevant experience of high-speed rail. FirstGroup has formed a partnership with Trenitalia to bid for both WCP and the new East Midlands franchise.

SNCF already has a stake in several UK rail operations through Keolis, in which it is a major shareholder. Keolis in turn holds a 65% stake in Govia, the joint venture with Go-Ahead Group that currently operates London Midland, Govia Thameslink Railway and Southeastern.