The Government has published a shortlist of three bidders under plans to re-privatise the East Coast mainline - which runs from Yorkshire to London - sparking a row over whether the rail franchise should remain publicly-run.
Some of the biggest transport firms, already running rail routes across the UK, including the First Group, Stagecoach, Virgin, Keolis and Eurostar, are on the list of preferred bidders for the 393-mile route.
Unions and other groups have been campaigning for months to halt re-privatisation of the franchise, which has been publicly-run since 2009. One union official accused the Government of “economic vandalism”.
Rail Minister Stephen Hammond said: “Giving passengers more will be at the heart of the new East Coast franchise. That means new services and journeys that are faster, more punctual and more comfortable.
“When these companies are developing their proposals they should be looking at ways to innovate and grow the service.
“We have embarked on one of the biggest programmes of rail investment ever, with over £35 billion being spent to enhance and run our rail network over the next five years.
“But for our railways to continue to grow we need strong private sector partners who can invest and innovate in ways that deliver a world class service.”
The three shortlisted biddes are East Coast Trains Ltd (First Group plc); Keolis/Eurostar East Coast Limited (Keolis (UK) Limited and Eurostar International Limited); and Inter City Railways Limited (Stagecoach Transport Holdings Limited and Virgin Holdings Limited).
The First Group operates First Great Western, Stagecoach own South West Trains, Virgin runs services from London to the north and Wales, while Keolis has a stake in Govia, which operates Southern and South Eastern.
The new franchise will start early next year.
Manuel Cortes, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association rail union, said: “This is nothing short of economic vandalism by a Chancellor who does not want voters to know the truth about the East Coast line - it is a public sector success story.
“It has been the cheapest franchise to run for the past five years and it has produced the greatest return to taxpayers, over £600 million.
“By selling it off before the election, he wants to hide those facts. We have the highest fares in Europe because we are the only country with a fragmented privately-run rail network.”
Rail, Maritime and Transport union general secretary Bob Crow said: “The truth is that out of pure ideology, this Government is prepared to take a third gamble on their big-business friends in a desperate bid to privatise the East Coast mainline before the election, even though they are well aware that the whole reckless exercise will cost the British public hundreds of millions of pounds in lost income.
“The publicly-owned East Coast is Britain’s most successful rail operation carrying more passengers per mile, more efficiently and with the highest levels of passenger satisfaction and handing over £200 million a year back to the taxpayers while comparable private train companies rob us blind. That is what the Government are out to destroy.
“The fight to stop this outrage goes on.”
The Department for Transport said in a statement: “While the East Coast franchise has been stabilised under government ownership since 2009, the route now needs a long-term private sector operator to plan for the future and meet the increasing demands for more trains serving even more destinations.”
Vernon Barker, FirstGroup’s managing director, UK Rail said: “We are delighted to have been shortlisted for the InterCity East Coast franchise competition.
“We have extensive experience of intercity services and have a strong track record in delivering passenger growth as well as capacity and infrastructure upgrades on the long distance franchises we run - First Great Western, First ScotRail and First TransPennine Express.
“We look forward to reviewing the contract details and submitting an innovative, compelling, and value for money bid which meets the needs of taxpayers as well as customers and businesses along the East Coast route.”