Darling to unveil railway expansion

Billions to be invested in north-south line and new high-speed trains to meet passenger growth
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The Independent Online

Mr Darling will use a speech to the National Rail Conference in London to set out an ambitious blueprint for the country's rail network to meet the anticipated growth of passenger numbers over the next 30 years.

On current projections, the Government is due to pump nearly £15bn into the rail network over the next three years. The minister will not provide specific figures on how much more money will be provided, but he will make it clear that increased funding will be made available to cater for the explosion in demand for train travel.

Among the initiatives Mr Darling is expected to highlight are plans for: a new north-south high-speed line, which could cost between £2bn and £4bn; a new fleet of French-style high-speed trains to replace the ageing fleet of InterCity 125 diesel trains; Swiss-style double-decker trains and lengthened platforms to cater for increased passenger and freight demand in the South-east.

Government spending on rail is scheduled to rise from £4.6bn this year to £5.8bn in 2006-07. But it is then forecast to start coming down, falling to £4.4bn by 2008-09 as investment in the Channel Tunnel Rail Link tails off.

Whitehall sources said Mr Darling would make it clear today that the capacity of the network will need to increase and, along with it, investment. How much extra money will be available for rail will, however, have to wait until the Chancellor's Comprehensive Spending Review is completed next year.

The proposals being unveiled today are likely to form the basis for a Railways White Paper to be published next year. It will be akin to the aviation White Paper published in 2004 setting out the Government's plans for a major expansion of UK airport capacity.

Britain's railways carried more than 1 billion passengers - the highest since 1959. The industry has now recovered from the trauma which followed the Hatfield disaster in 2000 and demand for rail travel is forecast to rise by 66 per cent over the next 20 years.

The pressure group Transport 2000 has been lobbying for a major increase in investment to meet this explosion in demand. Among the projects it wants to see brought forward to alleviate "pinch points" in the network are further investment in the East Coast main line, the London Paddington-Reading main line and the London Victoria-Brighton main line, which is restricted to single track in each direction south of Haywards Heath, preventing the introduction of more frequent and faster services.

There is also a shortage of capacity on commuter lines in the North-west and in London, where longer trains and platforms are needed to cater for more passengers arriving into the capital from the South. Stagecoach, the operator of South West Trains, originally planned to invest in double-decker trains for its commuter services into Waterloo but the idea was abandoned.

Mr Darling and senior Department of Transport officials are understood to have met representatives from Transport 2000 a fortnight ago and told them the organisation was "pushing at an open door".