Three companies have today been shortlisted by the government to run the East Coast rail franchise.

They include a group including Eurostar, a Stagecoach and Virgin Group combine and First Group’s East Coast Trains.

The bidders will be invited to deliver proposals for improved services for passengers on the inter-city line between London and Scotland.

The three companies have passed a ‘pre-qualification evaluation’ stage and can now start working on developing their plans for the franchise, before they receive the government’s invitation to tender.

The Department for Transport plans to issue an invitation to tender at the end of February and the potential operators will have at least three months to develop their bids, before new services start in February 2015.

The government wants the potential operators “to consider how they intend to use the latest high-tech trains, built in the UK, to deliver more passengers to more of the UK’s biggest cities faster and in greater comfort”.

Whitehall also expects to see how the future operators will capitalise on government investment along the route, including £240 million in infrastructure projects over the next five years to improve capacity and reduce journey times.

The East Coast franchise has been ‘stabilised’ under government ownership since 2009, but now needs a long-term private sector operator to plan for the future and meet the increasing demands for more trains serving more destinations.

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.”