Plans to sell the East Coast Main Line franchise will go ahead despite opposition, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has insisted.
And he said the service would improve under private management.
He made the comments in an interview with The Journal as opponents presented a petition of 25,000 signatures demanding the service remain in public control.
Campaign group We Own It delivered the petition, backed by trade unions, to the Department for Transport’s headquarters in London.
Long-distance services on the East Coast Main Line have been delivered by Government-owned business Directly Operated Railways since private operator National Express pulled out in 2009, with profits going back to the Treasury.
But ministers are now seeking a new firm to take over the franchise, which is set to return to private control in 2015.
Mr McLoughlin said: “We are doing it because we want it to get better.” And he insisted private investment had improved the rail network: “The truth is that what has happened since we’ve privatised the rail industry is we’ve seen a growth in rail traffic as we never expected.
“Twenty years ago, before the rail industry was nationalised in this country, people were making 750 million journeys by rail [each year]. Now it is 1.5 billion journeys.
“That is a major increase. It’s partly been bought about by the imagination and initiatives that people have used to attract people to the trains.”
Firms were keen to take over the East Coast Main Line, he said: “We’ve already had a number of companies that have said they are going to take an interest in providing that service. So I think it’s very good news for the service in the North East.”
But Kate Hobbs, of campaigners We Own It, said: “It is a real shame that they are ignoring the evidence, which shows that privatisation has not meant better services, and they are ignoring public opinion.”
Fares had gone up under private management, she said.
“The train companies have passengers over a barrel and the Government is supporting them.”
Mr McLoughlin also admitted that ministers needed to do more to explain the benefits of high-speed rail to the region – and hinted that the planned new rail network, currently due to run from London to Leeds, would later be extended to Newcastle and beyond.
The Transport Secretary also insisted Newcastle would benefit from the start, because trains were already set to run to the city under the current proposals, although they will slow down past Leeds.
He said: “This is one of the things we’ve got to try to get across. And you could say I’ve not done enough. As far as Newcastle is concerned, they will get over an hour saving on their journey from London. Because they will be able to go up to Leeds at high speed, and then it goes and joins on to York and further on to Newcastle.”