Labour and rail unions have bitterly opposed reprivatisation, pointing to the fact that East Coast has returned large amounts of money to the Treasury since it has been in the public sector.
But the Government is pressing ahead and officially launched the search for a new operator yesterday by publishing the prospectus for potential bidders.
The new operators of the key line, which runs from London to Scotland via Yorkshire, will have to demonstrate how they will support economic growth on the route and develop timetables which build on the core train service requirement published by the Department for Transport (DfT).
They will also be expected to invest in innovative ways to transform the customer experience on trains and at stations, show sensitivity to the environment and involve communities along the route in local decision making.
The line has been run under the control of the DfT since National Express pulled out of the franchise in November 2009.
Labour has been unhappy at what it sees as the haste by the Government to get the East Coast line back into private hands even though the whole nationwide franchise programme has been put back and altered following the West Coast bidding process fiasco.
The prospectus states that passenger revenue on the publicly-run line had grown by 11 per cent between 2009/10 and 2012/13 and journey numbers had increased from 18.1 million in 2009/10 to 19.1 million in 2012/13.
But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “We want to see a revitalised East Coast railway, one that both rekindles the spirit of competition for customers on this great route to Scotland and competes with the West Coast on speed, quality and customer service.
“We need a strong partner to ensure we successfully deliver the £240m programme of infrastructure investments on the route and the improvements in rolling stock that the multi-billion Intercity Express programme will provide. “
The Government said running the line in the public sector had never been planned to be a permanent arrangement. Indeed Labour, although now cool on the idea, had intended to return East Coast to private ownership when it was in power prior to the 2010 general election.
The new operator will be expected to capitalise on Government investment in this route over the next six years, including the replacement of the current rolling stock fleet, and major infrastructure improvements such as £20m enhancements to Doncaster station.
The DfT plans to confirm which prospective bidders have passed the pre-qualification stage in January. It expects to issue the invitation to tender in February.
The shortlisted bidders will then have three months to prepare bids, with franchise services starting in February 2015.
The new franchise is set to run for eight to nine years with possible extension of up to two years.
Channel Tunnel high-speed train company Eurostar has said it wants to bid for the East Coast franchise in partnership with French company Keolis, which already runs a number of UK domestic lines.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The Government has completely lost the plot over its handling of our railways.
“Since returning to public ownership the East Coast line has flourished, with rising customer satisfaction levels and £800 million returned to the UK taxpayer.
“The Government doesn’t have one good argument for reprivatising the line and is yet again being blinded by outdated market dogma.
“As with the Royal Mail, they are putting ideology before evidence in the desire to sell off yet another important state asset.”