Three bidders have been shortlisted to run the re-privatised East Coast Main Line. They are East Coast Trains Ltd (First Group); Keolis/Eurostar East Coast Limited; and Inter City Railways Limited (Stagecoach and Virgin).
The Government has run express services on the 393-mile line between London and Scotland since 2009, when National Express East Coast defaulted on its franchise.
Critics say the publicly-owned East Coast company has done a good job and should continue to run trains.
But 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.”
The new franchise is due to start next year.
Mr Hammond: “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.”
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.”