THE controversial re-privatisation of the East Coast rail line has taken another step forward, with a call for detailed bids to be submitted.

An invitation to tender (ITT) for the franchise was issued by the department for transport (Dft) yesterday (Friday, March 21), promising “faster and more frequent services” by 2020.

New routes including Middlesbrough and Sunderland (via Newcastle), Harrogate (via York) and Scarborough are also possible, the Dft said.

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Stephen Hammond, the rail minister, said: “Franchising has been a force for good for our railways, delivering record growth to an industry that was once in decline.

“The time is now right for us to find a long-term partner for the East Coast franchise, who can use their private sector expertise and knowledge to build on the significant investment planned for the route.”

But the move is bitterly opposed by Labour MPs, the trade unions and some passenger groups, who argue it is unnecessary and risky.

Profits - currently being reinvested in a better rail network, from a successful state-run line - will now be lost to private shareholders, the critics say.

And there are fears of a third “franchise fiasco” after both National Express and GNER handed back the East Coast keys, when they ran out of cash.

Ministers were also accused of trying to hide the success of the East Coast line in state hands in the franchise prospectus, to make the case for re-privatisation.

The three shortlisted bidders are:

* Inter City Railways Limited (a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin).

* A consortium of French-owned Keolis and Eurostar International, which runs cross-channel services.

* First Group.

The franchise is due to start next February – with the contract awarded in October – but ministers are in a race against time, with the general election just 14 months away.