THREE bidders have been shortlisted to run the re-privatised East Coast Main Line.

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 today (Friday, January 17): "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 shortlisted bidders 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 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."

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.”

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 fight to stop this outrage goes on."

Vernon Barker, FirstGroup's managing director, UK Rail said: "We are delighted to have been shortlisted for the InterCity East Coast franchise competition.”

The franchise will be for eight or nine years with a possible two-year extension.