A key London to Scotland rail route, now effectively under state control, will pass back into private hands in November 2011 under Government plans announced today.
A public sector company - East Coast - took over the East Coast Main Line from cash-strapped franchisee National Express earlier this month.
Today, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said the Department for Transport would be consulting on the new East Coast franchise specification in spring 2010.
It is expected that interested parties will be invited to tend for the franchise next autumn, with the successful bidder being announced in summer 2011 and the new franchise beginning in November 2011.
Rail unions have urged the Government to keep the East Coast line in the public sector, but the Government has always maintained it planned to have the line privately operated again.
Lord Adonis also announced today the timetable for the bidding process for the Essex Thameside franchise run by National Express as c2c which is due to expire in May 2011.
He said companies would be invited to tender in summer 2010, with the successful bidder announced in early 2011 and the new franchising starting in May 2011.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said: "Despite the blatant failures of privatisation on the East Coast, and despite the massive costs and disruption to the taxpayer and the users of the route, the Government have now waded straight back in like compulsive gamblers with plans to take another punt with a private operator in just 18 months' time.
"This obsession with rail privatisation defies all logic and will be a massive vote-loser for Labour at the next general election with their core supporters.
"Recent polls show that over 70% of the British people oppose rail privatisation and yet they are being ignored by the politicians who seem to think our transport services should be little more than a cash point for the big private operators.
"RMT will fight hard for the East Coast to remain in public ownership and for the rest of the railways to be run as public services, and not as an opportunity for the train operators to make a fast buck at the travellers' expense."