HALF hourly trains to Manchester from Blackburn throughout the day could be running within four years, the Lancashire Telegraph can reveal.

Bosses at Blackburn with Darwen Council have unveiled an £8million bid to the Department of Transport and Network Rail to upgrade the railway line.

Bosses hope that the improvements, which include a mile-long section of double track, better signals, faster track and longer trains at peak times, would increase the number of passengers.

Jack Straw, Blackburn MP and Leader of the House of Commons, has thrown his weight behind the scheme and has been lobbying his government colleagues behind the scenes for months for the cash.

Supporters of the proposal argue the upgrade is desperately needed to boost the future prosperity of the borough - attracting people to live in the area working in well-paid jobs in Manchester.

But the leader of the opposition at the council, Coun Colin Rigby, said bosses should have vision' and be looking to double track the entire length - which would provide a 20-minute interval service.

Northern Rail, who run the service, have worked with the council to build up the case, and welcomed the bid.

The company currently operates half hourly trains at peak times, but only hourly throughout the day.

The upgrade would make the service half-hourly Monday to Saturday.

Hourly services on Sunday would remain.

The bid, which is more like a request for money as it is not competing against others for cash, argues that there is currently suppressed demand for services that would be released by the improvements.

The line is currently single track between Darwen and Bromley Cross.

Although it could currently support a half hourly service, it would struggle with reliability because of the lack of passing places.

Passengers groups said the problem at peak times is that, because there is only one track, trains have to wait for the one coming in the opposite direction to pass, and this causes delays.

The upgrade would involve adding a mile of double track between Darwen and Sough tunnel, which is before Entwistle.

And track improvements that would include faster track, where there are currently speed restrictions, and better level-crossings would take four minutes off journeys - which currently take 48 minutes Blackburn to Manchester.

At peak times an additional carriage could be added, boosting capacity by 150 seats.

Chiefs said these improvements would lead to greater reliability and higher numbers of users.

Mr Straw said: "I have been promised a good hearing for this by the Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander.

"I am hoping he will give us the money just to shut me up.

"This is really important because the economy of Manchester is growing disproportionately fast and the travel-to-work area is extending into East Lancashire.

"But the road system can't cope with much more of an increase in volume."

He said road building was an option but had its "natural limits".

"Getting the railways to back where they were 60 years ago is much better - it's essential."

He said it was crazy for the double track ever to have been lifted.

Mr Straw said that calculations showed that £34million would enable a complete doubling of the track which would allow for trains every 20-minutes, but at the moment the case did not stack up on a cost benefit analysis.

He said: "What we want to do is make the £8million improvements, and what I am quite clear about is that as soon as there is a regular half hour service with improved reliability we will then me able to make the case for double track altogether."

Council figures show that in 2001 about eight per cent of the working population travelled to Greater Manchester for work, while only two per cent commuted to Preston.

Bosses said the percentage going to Manchester was likely to have increased, and that the majority of 1.2million journeys to and from stations in both towns were doing north-south trips.

It is hoped the number of journeys to and from Manchester would increase by 130,000 a year.

Bosses at the council said if the bid was successful, work could start by the end of the year and it would take about four years.

Coun Kate Hollern, leader of the council said: "Train links are vital for our borough. Not just because they give us a convenient way to reach Manchester or Bolton, but because they provide key routes to work for our citizens and are vital to encourage visitors and shoppers to come to our two towns.

"This bid is for a relatively small amount of investment in our rail networks that can have a dramatic impact and we are very hopeful it will be successful."

Alan Benson, secretary of Support the Line East Lancashire (STELA) said: "This would be very good news for the people who use that line.

"But it would not make that much difference to people in other areas like Huncoat because of the frequency of their trains. But you have got to start somewhere."

Campaigners in Burnley are trying to get a link to Manchester by restoring the defunct Todmorden curve.