High-speed rail link to go up for sale
The British Government has signalled the start of the sale of High Speed 1 (HS1) - the 68-mile (110km) London to Folkestone Channel Tunnel rail link.
Likely to bring in around £1.5 billion, the sale could open up the route to more operators, including - possibly - overseas concerns.
At present, HS1 is used by the London to Paris and Brussels high-speed train company Eurostar and also by the Southeastern train company. Southeastern operates London-to-Kent domestic services on the line, using Japanese-built Javelin trains.
The route is currently being run by London and Continental Railways (LCR) under the control of the Department for Transport.
Launching the sale, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "High Speed 1 is a national success story and a world-class railway operating to international standards. The money generated by this sale will make an early significant contribution to the crucial task of reducing the public sector debt.
"That's good news for the taxpayer. But the sale will also bring benefits to passengers as the successful private bidder will be incentivised to attract new operators serving new routes.
"This is part of the Government's approach to making our national assets - and every taxpayer pound - work harder. The Government does not have to run everything directly - we need to take prompt action where private enterprise can provide both a better deal and a superior service to the public."
Mr Hammond said he expected that the Government would be able to announce a winner of the HS1 bidding process before the end of the year.
HS1 runs from St Pancras station in London to Folkestone. Stations en route are Stratford in east London, Ebbsfleet in north Kent, and Ashford in Kent.
The successful bidder will become the owner of HS1 Ltd which has a 30-year concession to run the line and stations.
Following the sale, the performance of HS1 Ltd will be independently policed by the Office of Rail Regulation to ensure that rail passengers' interests are effectively safeguarded.
Mr Hammond reiterated the Government's aim to link HS1 to HS2 - the north-south high-speed line that the Government hopes to start in 2015.
LCR chief executive Mark Bayley said: "HS1 is a unique and high-quality infrastructure business. A world-class railway, it speeds tens of thousands of people between London, Kent and continental Europe every day. In addition, the line has already led to substantial regeneration along the route and will play a vital role in transporting spectators to and from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games."
Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers will not worry who is running the high-speed infrastructure as long as any competition works in the overall passenger interest, fares represent value for money and the quality of the stations is maintained."