RAIL unions are looking to launch a legal challenge against the Government's plans to reprivatise the East Coast Main Line.

Aslef, RMT and TSSA are seeking a judicial review after accusing the coalition of "rushing through" the award of a new franchise for the route, which runs through York, so it is in place before next May's General Election.

The unions said their members' jobs and working conditions, as well as the interests of passengers and taxpayers, were being threatened by a lack of consultation. The service is currently run by Directly Operated Railways, with all profits returned to the state and with more than £600 million in premiums having been paid to the Treasury since 2009, when National Express walked away from the franchise.

A previous operator, GNER, also had to end its franchise, while the West Coast franchising programme was left in chaos after the initial award was overturned and serious flaws were found in the process. The Brown Review on rail franchising said procurement should take at least two years.

The three shortlisted contenders for running the East Coast route are Virgin Rail, First Group and a joint venture of SNCF subsidiaries Keolis and Eurostar. If the franchise award is not held up by any judicial review, a new operator is expected to be in place by next February.

Union officials said ministers had "cut corners" on the East Coast programme, with Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan saying: "It is imperative that we raise the genuine concerns of all stakeholders, but especially the employees, before this is rushed through - we cannot, in good conscience, allow the mistakes of the past to happen again."

RMT acting general secretary Mick Cash said: "After the scandal of this Government robbing the British taxpayer of a billion pounds in the scramble to privatise the Royal Mail, it is shocking that they are engaging in the same tactics to try and hand the East Coast Main Line back to their friends in big business.

"The British public have a right to openness and transparency when it comes to the ideologically-driven attempt to sell off Britain's most successful rail route to the speculators and chancers after two previous private sector failures on the same line."

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "We will vigorously defend this claim and remain committed to the franchising programme.

"As these legal proceedings are ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage."