Birmingham's New Street station is at breaking point with the confirmation of a massive increase in long distance services, rail campaigners have warned.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains was awarded a six-year franchise yesterday to continue running the West Coast Main Line. It means the company can press ahead with plans for major improvements in services, including adding a third service every hour between Birmingham and London Euston.
Virgin is also in negotiations about increasing passenger numbers on each service by adding two more coaches to each of its nine-coach Pendolino trains. But the upgrades have added extra urgency to calls for the Government to support the refurbishment of New Street Station.
The station cannot cope with the number of passengers using it already, and staff have even been forced to close it for safety reasons because of overcrowding.
The city council, Network Rail, Birmingham MPs and Centro, the Passenger Transport Authority, are calling on the Government to back an ambitious proposal to refurbish New Street.
Called Birmingham Gateway, it would require #380 million of Government funding. Ministers are expected to make a decision in the summer. John Hemming, the Lib Dem MP for Yardley, yesterday said: "Today's announcement means we are knocking up against the limits of New Street in terms of the passenger numbers it can cope with.
"It highlights the case for New Street's refurbishment."
Jane Cobell, of Rail Focus, formerly known as the Rail Passengers' Council, said: "We are concerned about both train and passenger capacity at New Street station.
"We are speaking to Network Rail and the Department for Transport about our concerns."
Coun Gary Clarke, chairman of West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority, said: "This underlines the important of New Street to our national rail network. It is equally vital to local and regional services."
A spokesman for Virgin Trains insisted New Street could cope with the increased services. Running more long-distance trains could reduce over-crowding by getting commuters out of the station more quickly, he said.
But he said Virgin was concerned about the lack of capacity on the track, which restricts the number of services that can run.
Spokesman Jim Rowe said: "Network Rail and the train operators have worked out the train timetable based on the current New Street layout.
"As far as New Street is concerned, we want a better environment for people to wait in. In terms of track layout, the current track layout can cope with the timetable being introduced in December 2008. If there is a concern it is about if we go forward from there and the growth continues into the next decade beyond 2012.
"We could reach a stage where the layout was starting to become constrained.
"There are two issues. The first is making sure we have the right number of tracks. The second is making sure there is enough space for people."
Since 2002, Virgin has operated the West Coast Main Line in a special management deal with the Department for Transport (DfT) known as a "letter agreement".
This was put in place after Network Rail’s predecessor company, Railtrack, failed to deliver agreed improvements on the line as part of a multi-billion pound upgrade.
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