A JOINT venture between FirstGroup and the Italian state railway operator Trenitalia is one of three bidders shortlisted for the next East Midlands franchise.
The others are Arriva and the incumbent Stagecoach, which has run the franchise since November 2007.
The new contract will start between July 2018 and March 2019, because flexibility has been built into nearly all future franchise dates after the franchising programme had to be replanned as a result of the collapse of the Intercity West competition in October 2012.
The Department for Transport said ministers 'want to improve the quality, frequency and timings of journeys on the east of the franchise network and to seek to develop new services and connections'.
The new operator will be expected to handle predicted growth in demand, in particular to St Pancras International, but also on local crowded services such as Derby-Crewe.
Rail minister Paul Maynard said: “A flourishing rail network brings real growth and prosperity to the region it serves. That is why we are making the biggest investment in the national rail network in more than 100 years to deliver the safer, faster and more comfortable journeys that passengers want.
“At the same time, Network Rail is working on improvements which by 2019 will enable the next East Midlands franchise to deliver more carriages and faster journeys over the whole route, including almost twice as many seats into London St Pancras in the peak hours.
“I am delighted that all these first-class companies have demonstrated their confidence in our vision for the future of the rail industry in Great Britain by bidding for this key franchise.”
Stagecoach has produced a plan which involves introducing new bi-modal vehicles for main line services between Sheffield and London, although if the idea were to be agreed by the DfT any new trains might not arrive before the next franchise starts.
The main line will remain a diesel route north of Kettering, at least for the time being, although electrification between Bedford, Kettering and Corby is under way.