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Bechtel joins forces with Virgin in bid for ECML


US CONSTRUCTION giant Bechtel and train operator Virgin Rail this week announced plans to create a rail infrastructure company to own and operate 190km of high speed railway between London and Edinburgh.

The proposal to establish a new line company was embedded in Virgin Rail's £4.6bn bid to win the 20-year franchise to run the East Coast Main Line from 2003.

Bechtel has agreed to be an equity partner together with Virgin and bus company Stagecoach. At present, Railtrack is not part of the venture but if the bid is successful Virgin hopes Railtrack will join.

The £4.6bn bid, submitted to the shadow Strategic Rail Authority on 21 February, outlines plans to invest £3.3bn upgrading the ECML infrastructure. The bid also includes a £1.3bn plan to buy 60 French high speed TGV trains, of which 15 are expected to start running by 2005, with the rest by 2010.

Virgin's bid was put together in partnership with Bechtel. Virgin non- executive director Jim Steer told NCE: 'The proposal envisages a new line company. This will own the infrastructure. Bechtel will make an equity contribution to the partnership.'

He added: 'It is for Railtrack to decide if it wants to contribute. The Railways Act envisages different owners of infrastructure.'

But non-executive director Will Whitehorn said the question of ownership was still being discussed. 'It is an issue we have suggested to the sSRA. Railtrack will manage the line for safety and operations. We are not trying to create a competitive threat to Railtrack.'

The plan would see 190km of new high speed twin track constructed to bypass two sections of the existing line - 168km from Connington to Hambleton and 23km from Killingworth to Chevington. The track will be used exclusively by the 330km/h TGVs.

The bid also includes five sections of line electrification and three new parkway stations. It contains about £1bn of infrastructure work currently planned on the route by Railtrack.

The new line company will have to buy up large swathes of land. Lawyers contacted by NCE said the scheme effectively involved building a new railway line. A Virgin spokesman admitted it is likely that an Act of Parliament would be needed to allow the scheme to go ahead.

Railtrack's £1.5bn plan to upgrade the ECML is based on existing franchise holder GNER's plans for the route. The central plank of GNER's bid for the franchise is a proposal to upgrade the existing route to take 225km/h tilting trains.

But Virgin claimed that GNER's plan did not take account of projected passenger growth and said its plan was the only one that provided the necessary 'step change' needed to compete with air travel between London and Edinburgh.

The company added that running the world's fastest train at full speed on the existing ECML was impossible because of the volume of slower local and freight trains.

The sSRA said it expected to make a decision about the franchise bids in early summer.

Richard Thompson

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