A short-list of potential operators of trains on the East Coast Main Line was unveiled yesterday amid confusion about the future role of rail firm GNER.
The Department for Transport (DfT) announced that Sunderland-based Arriva, First Group, National Express and a joint bid by Virgin and Stagecoach would be considered to run trains linking the North-East with London and Scotland.
The move comes after current operator GNER handed back its franchise in December after warning it could not pay a £1.3bn premium to the Government - although it will continue to run trains until a new company is found.
The winning bidder will be announced in the summer and could be running trains by late autumn under a franchise lasting up to seven years and five months.
But there were calls last night for more clarity about GNER's possible future role after it said it was in "active discussions" with shortlisted firms and that an announcement could be forthcoming. The Journal also understands that shortlisted companies are allowed to talk to other firms about forming a "bidding consortium".
A GNER spokesman said: "We were approached by several potential bidders who wanted to team up with GNER, recognising our management expertise, knowledge of the route and high service standards.
"We remain in active discussions with shortlisted parties and have no intention of standing on the sidelines.
"We will continue to do everything possible to shape the future of this important franchise beyond the life of the current management contract, safeguarding our hard-earned service ethos."
A Virgin spokesman said its partner was Stagecoach; First Group said it would not comment on whether it was in discussions with GNER.
Arriva said it had submitted its bid as Arriva; National Express said it was not in discussions with GNER. Tyne Bridge Labour MP David Clelland said: "What we could do with is a bit more clarity and a bit more openness, rather than all this behind the scenes situation.
"It will be a great relief to everyone once this gets sorted out, particularly if we are assured that the level of service is maintained."
Mike Parker, from the North-East chamber of commerce, said the chamber was keen to see that planned investment was not lost and what any operator had to offer business travellers.
Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said the new firm must build on services and go ahead with station improvements - including extra parking.
It said the new franchise must not be based on big price rises for passengers and there should be an obligation to develop plans to cut crowding, while GNER's commitments about car park pricing between 2006 and 2015 had to be honoured.
The DfT said the new operator must maintain the current timetable and set fares in line with Government policy as well as show willingness to develop new ticketing systems such "smartcards".