The battle is under way to secure the future of trans-pennine travel, as a shortlist of four companies has been drawn up to improve rail services across the north of England.

The winners of the franchise will have up to 20 years to link Liverpool and Manchester with Leeds, York, Newcastle and Sheffield, as well as other key towns and cities in the north

The shortlisted parties are:

* Arriva plc (franchisee of Northern Spirit and Merseyrail), the current holder of the franchise

* Connex Transport UK Ltd

* Serco Rail (operators of Manchester Metrolink)

* ViaGTI in partnership with FirstGroup plc, who already run York's buses.

The new franchise-holder will be expected to encourage the greater use of rail travel through the region by providing fast, frequent and reliable rail services between large towns and cities and key rail, air, sea and road interchanges.

In the New Year the shortlist will be whittled down to two before a decision is announced.

The timetable for decision-making has been delayed by the crisis on the railway network caused by urgent track repairs following the Hatfield crash. An announcement on the franchise battle between Virgin and GNER for the East Coast Main Line is expected to be announced by the SSRA next month.