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Is Network Rail's multi-billion plan for rail expansion good news for the North West?

A massive expansion planned by Network Rail Photo: PA Pictures

A £37.5 billion plan has been unveiled which could see a major expansion of the North West rail network.

If approved, the plan by Network Rail (NR) seems to offer several key benefits for rail passengers from our region, such as 700 more trains a day linking key northern cities and a 10-minute reduction in journey time between Manchester and Leeds.

But NR are already warning that fares will have to rise to pay for the proposals to become reality.

Nationwide, it's claimed the plan will provide 170,000 extra commuter seats at peak times by 2019, by which time the railways could be carrying as many as 225 million more passengers than at present.

NR also warned that even with the extra trains and seats this would "not be enough" on the busy West Coast Main Line where the added capacity of the London to Birmingham HS2 high-speed rail line project was, it said, "essential".

Piccadilly Station, Manchester Credit: PA Pictures

And NR chief executive Sir David Higgins added, ominously, that the industry, under pressure to cut costs, had entered "the era of trade-offs".

He went on: "Increasingly we have to balance the need to build more infrastructure, run trains on time and cut costs, and in many areas choices will need to be made."

The NR plans come at a time of passenger anger at the above-inflation 4.2% season ticket average fare rises this month.

Publication of the high salaries and attractive bonuses of some of the bosses of the train operators' parent companies has also done little to assuage commuter ire.

To be agreed with and approved by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), the NR plan envisages improvements that by 2019 will:

:: See 225 million more passengers per year travelling and 355,000 more trains in service - the highest numbers ever;

:: Provide 20% extra morning peak seats into central London and 32% into large regional cities in England and Wales;

:: Provide 700 more trains a day linking key northern cities and a 10-minute reduction in journey time between Manchester and Leeds;

:: See 30% more freight being carried than today;

:: Cut CO2 emissions per passenger by 37% and reduce risk at level crossings by 8%;

:: Plan a move away from more than 800 signal boxes to 14 major operations centres;

:: Reduce the cost of running Britain's railways by a further 18% and cut annual public subsidy to between £2.6 billion and £2.9 billion in 2019 - down from £4.5 billion in 2009 and £7 billion in 2004.

Projects include various electrification schemes, including the Great Western and Midland Main Lines, station improvements at Birmingham New Street and Reading in Berkshire, and reopening 31 miles of railways in Scotland closed under the Beeching cuts of 50 years ago.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "While we support any plans to expand and invest in Britain's railways, you cannot seriously expect to safely increase capacity while at the same time the Government is looking to axe key frontline staff on trains, track and stations.

Critical of the plans: RMT General Secretary Bob Crow Credit: PA Pictures

He went on: "If the Government press on with the jobs cuts plans, they will simply be cramming more and more people into an overcrowded and unreliable service where safety is compromised and the profits of the private train operators are prioritised. That is simply a recipe for disaster."

Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) chief executive Richard Price said: "Ministers have shown huge faith in what the railways can add to Britain's society and economy, committing to around #20 billion-worth of public money at a time when there is little money to go around.

"Key to maintaining rail's success will be openly justifying this significant commitment of public money. Taxpayers significantly fund the railways, and have every right see where this money is being spent."

He added that the NR plan "demonstrates the company's ambition to deliver an even better railway for Britain".