Network Rail is planning a £1.8 billion transformation of the railways - starting with a 100-mile stretch between London and Peterborough.
The upgrade to so-called 'digital railway' aims to improve capacity and reliability with new computerised signalling.
The operator is currently seeking a partner to install and maintain the system, with a contract set to be awarded in the spring.
The introduction of digital technology on the East Coast Mainline between London King's Cross and Peterborough by 2024 will be the country's first major inter-city deployment of ETCS (European Train Control System) signalling.
This will help make the ability to run trains at 140 mph - compared with 125mph today - a "much more credible proposition", Network Rail route programme director Toufic Machnouk said.
A technology provider will be appointed to work with the Government-ownedcompany to develop a digital signalling system to run for 30 years.
The 100-mile stretch of track between London and Peterborough was chosen for the project because of a "once-in-a-generation alignment of opportunities", according to Mr Machnouk.
Its signalling equipment - some of which dates back to the 1970s - needs renewing at the same time as new trains capable of exploiting digital technology are being introduced.
Performance on the East Coast suffers from old signalling assets and trains, combined with high demand from both passenger and freight operators.
Network Rail predicts that ETCS could lead to an increase from six long-distance trains per hour to eight, and a total of 20 trains per hour through Welwyn Garden City, compared with 16 today.
Once the East Coast work has been completed, Network Rail will look to roll out the technology on other routes.