Four government-backed European rail operators have expressed an interest in running the West Coast franchise which expires next year.
Deutsche Bahn, Abellio, Trenitalia and Renfe are expected to put in bids for the prestigious franchise that will run until 2026, when the first phase of the north-south high speed rail link is expected to open.
The franchise, currently operated by Virgin Trains, generated passenger related revenue of £720m in 2009/10 and the bidding is predicted to be fierce, with private operators, such as First, also expected to bid.
It is likely that Virgin will put up a determined fight to retain the franchise.
Shortlisted bidders will be named by the end of March and invitations to tender are scheduled to go out in May, with the winner to be announced towards the end of this year.