EAST Coast Main Line services connecting Yorkshire with London and Edinburgh will be back in private hands within two years, the Government announced yesterday.
Companies have been asked to submit bids to run the services with a view to taking over in February 2015.
The high-speed link has been operated by Government-backed company East Coast since 2009.
A private bidder was expected to take over this year, but that timetable was thrown into chaos when the Government halted all franchise competitions following the fiasco over the West Coast Main Line last year.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin yesterday confirmed there would be delays to rail franchises across the country as the Government deals with the West Coast fallout.
Existing operators have been given contract extensions, including those running the Northern and Transpennine services which will both now run until February 2016.
The East Midlands franchise will be extended by 30 months to October 2017 while the Cross Country franchise will be stretched by 43 months to November 2019.
Mr McLoughlin said: “This programme is a major step in delivering tangible improvements to services, providing long-term certainty to the market and supporting our huge programme of rail investment.
“Above all, in future franchise competitions we are placing passengers in the driving seat by ensuring that their views and satisfaction levels are taken into account when deciding which companies run our railway services.
“Franchising has been a force for good in the story of Britain’s railways, transforming an industry that was in decline into one that today carries record numbers of passengers.”
But Labour questioned the decision to privatise the East Coast route again.
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said: “With the Government’s rail franchising programme in chaos, it is a bizarre and dogmatic decision to prioritise the privatisation of a service that is actually on track.
“Since running services on a not for private profit basis, the East Coast operator has returned £640m to the taxpayer and invested more than £40m in improvements to the service, achieving some of the best results for passengers since records began.
“It’s clear that the Government has learnt nothing from the franchising fiasco that could eventually see more than £100m of taxpayers’ money go down the drain as a result of Ministerial incompetence.”
Business leaders in the region urged the Government to use East Coast Main Line franchise competition to secure improvements to services on the key route.
Mark Goldstone, head of policy at the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: “The connection from Leeds and York to London is vitally important to many businesses in our region and we would hope that transfer back into private hands will be seamless ensuring competitively priced, reliable services continue.
“Members would also want to see continuation of investment in services started under the current owners to further improve capacity and reliability.”
Councils and transport authorities across the North are in discussions with the Government with a view to taking over responsibility for rail services.
The move would see the Transpennine and Northern rail services combined and offered as a single franchise.
Metro director general Kieran Preston said: “While much work has gone into making this a reality for the original franchise date, the revised timetable for the Northern and Transpennine franchises to both start in February 2016 will make it easier to recombine the two separate franchises into one covering the whole of the north of England, providing a more integrated rail network for passengers.”