EAST Lancashire's new superhospital is to be even bigger than planned with extra beds and another operating theatre, health chiefs revealed today.

And the huge Blackburn hospital will include the latest in X-ray technology -- a film-less radiology system.

Project director Simon Neville said plans for the extension to Queen's Park Hospital had been enlarged by another 15 per cent to include 25 more beds and extensions to several units.

He said: "The Government's NHS plan means we will have more money long term to employ staff and we will be expected to do more, such as bringing down waiting lists."

The new hospital, which bosses plan to call the Royal Blackburn Hospital, will have 657 beds, a dozen more than Blackburn Royal Infirmary and the present Queen's Park Hospital put together.

Of the X-ray modernisation, Mr Neville said: "There won't be any conventional X-ray films. All the images will be stored and generated electronically. They can be transmitted to terminals in other parts of the hospital.

"It's cutting edge stuff. There are only a few systems like it in the country."

Although buying the equipment is expensive, the Trust believes it will make business sense in the long term by saving storage and film costs.

NHS Commissioners have agreed to give the hospital about £1.7million extra per annum to provide and run the enlarged hospital.

It will be built under the controversial Private Finance Initiative, which means a private company will be paid over 25 years to build and run the extension, after which it will belong to the Blackburn, Hyndburn and Ribble Valley NHS Trust.

Mr Neville said they had now narrowed down the companies bidding to build the hospital to Balfour Beatty, which is building the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and Kier, which has just completed a Glasgow hospital.

Both companies have already submitted models of how their extensions would look, and they will now put together more detailed plans. Mr Neville said: "Designers from the two companies will now be sitting down with our doctors, nurses and paramedics to design their departments to suit the ways they work.

"The trade unions will also be involved in the deal for transferring staff to the company running the hospital."

The NHS Trust will make their final choice in June and work will begin in the autumn.

The new hospital is expected to open in spring 2005.