Blackpool could have a direct rail link with London restored before the end of the year, it was today revealed.
Network Rail, which last year rejected plans by Virgin Trains to introduce two new direct return services a day between the resort and London, today confirmed it was now working with Virgin to bring back a direct link by December.
The plans, which are currently being drawn up by the two companies, would see existing services from London to other areas extended to Blackpool. They will have to go out to consultation and be ratified by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) before they are given full approval.
But the backing of the proposals by Network Rail is the strongest indication yet that a capital service will be reinstated.
It follows a Gazette campaign which saw more than 5,000 readers back calls to bring a direct link back to the resort.
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “We recognise the demand for direct services
between Blackpool and London and are close to submitting a joint application with Virgin Trains to introduce them from December 2014.
“We continue to work with Virgin Trains on this issue, but before potential services can be confirmed they need to be subject to industry consultation and approval by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).”
A spokesman said Network Rail was working with Virgin to look at extending existing services which are operating between London and other areas to Blackpool.
However, he could not say which services (for example London to Preston or London to Manchester) would be extended and therefore how many direct trains from Blackpool to London there would be.
But the development has today been welcomed by community leaders and the business community, who believe it would provide a major boost to the resort.
Last year Network Rail objected to plans tabled in March 2013 by Virgin to introduce new direct services from Blackpool to London on the grounds that there was not enough capacity on the West Coast Main Line.
Virgin took its case to the Office of Rail Regulation, backed by thousands of readers as part of The Gazette’s On Track to the Capital campaign.
But the ORR agreed with Network Rail’s assertion.
However, this new plan would see existing services extended to Blackpool North, meaning there would be no extra trains operating on the line and no impact on existing capacity.
Wyre MP Ben Wallace said: “All the MPs have been trying to make sure we have a direct route to London.
“Virgin has wanted to do it, but Network Rail said there was too much congestion on the route.
“However, the latest update from Network Rail includes the Blackpool to London link, which is very encouraging news indeed.
“The update said Network Rail believed it could submit a bid by the end of the year with Virgin, so it seems the last barriers to this happening have now been removed.
“I’m pleased this is the case because rail links are important to support the regeneration going on in Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde, particularly through the Lancashire Economic Partnership.”
A spokesman for Virgin Trains said providing Network Rail supported its bid, it would make a submission to the ORR. He added: “Subject to the ORR’s approval, and Virgin Trains being able to demonstrate to our DfT colleagues that these services meet
affordability criteria and deliver value for money, we will start crew training as soon as practicable, with the intention of operating the first passenger service from Blackpool to London on December 14, 2014.”
The route would initially use diesel Voyager trains until the electrification of the line between Blackpool and Preston is completed in May 2016 when Virgin could introduce its Pendolino trains.
Paul Nettleton, of the Blackpool and Fylde Rail Users Association, said; “We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope this can happen.
“Blackpool has had no proper connection with the capital since Ryanair withdrew its flights from Blackpool Airport to Stansted a few years ago, and it is vital for this part of the world.”
Hugh Evans, policy director and the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said: “ The business benefits to our local economy in terms of increased visitor numbers would be massive as it would bring Blackpool within easy reach of the UK’s most prosperous location.”
Fleetwood MP Eric Ollerenshaw said: “Last week in Parliament, I had a meeting with Paul Maynard MP and Network Rail regarding the possibility of direct London trains to Blackpool, with a stop at Poulton.
“This time, the news seemed more encouraging, and Network Rail is looking to sort a trial of two trains a day from Euston to Blackpool from December this year.
“Let’s hope these plans actually happen as it could be another important boost to the whole Fylde coast.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said: “If Network Rail is now getting behind Virgin’s bid for direct services that is encouraging, and demonstrates the strength of the campaign.
“Of course the prospect of HS2 (High Speed) perhaps freeing up extra space on the West Coast Main Line is another factor.
“I am sure we will all be pressing for more details on what the impact will be for the length of journey from Blackpool to London.”