The DfT plans to announce in January which prospective bidders have been qualified to bid. It will then issue invitations to tender in February and bidders will have until May to submit their tenders. The new franchise is expected to start in February 2015.

The franchise has been run by the DfT's own in-house operator Directly Operated Railways as East Coast following the collapse of the previous franchisee, National Express, which itself took over the franchise following the collapse of Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). The successful bidder will be required to purchase East Coast for a sum set by DfT which is expected to be less than £20m.

The franchise covers services from London King's Cross to Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness. In 2012-13 East Coast had turnover of £611.7m, covering 19 million journeys and 4.9 billion passenger-km. Bidders may also be asked to run services to up to five additional destinations which will be revealed in the tender documents.

"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," says Mr Patrick McLoughlin, Britain's secretary of state for transport. "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 new operator will compete with two open-access operators, First Hull Trains and Grand Central, which run services from London to Hull, Sunderland, and Bradford.