£20 MILLION of improvements leading to more regular and faster trains between East Lancashire and Manchester could be in place as soon as 2016, a Government minister has said.

Rail and aviation minister Theresa Villiers has urged Blackburn with Darwen, Clitheroe and Rossendale Councils to bid for funding for the infrastructure improvements needed to improve the line.

Mrs Villiers spoke after Blackburn’s Labour MP Jack Straw and Rossendale and Darwen Conservative counterpart Jake Berry MP raised the issue in Parliament.

Mr Straw told MPs there had been a 90 per cent increase in local rail use in the past 15 years, while the line is forecast to be used by 1.7 million passengers this financial year.

He said: “The irony is that alongside a catalogue of significant improvements, the one service that cannot be significantly improved is the line under consideration. The reason is very simple: the track between Blackburn and Bolton was singled in the 1960s.

“The result is that the maximum level of service that is possible to run on that line is that run today— basically, an hourly service with a half hourly service in the morning and evening peaks.

“Overcrowding on the services can be intense, as all of us who use it can bear witness, and the quality of the rolling stock is poor on the whole, despite the best efforts of Northern Rail.”

He said the solution was to double the track, the cost of which has been estimated at £20 million.

Mr Berry said: “The current service is infrequent and suffers from chronic overcrowding. Despite those problems, it is heavily used.”

He said doubling of the line was needed alongside works including the lengthening of platforms, so that East Lancasgire towns could enjoy the benefits of Manchester’s economic growth.

But Network Rail has said rather than doubling the line, a longer passing loop at Darwen and an increase in line speed capability at Turton crossing were needed.

“Work is going on to establish how much they are likely to cost,” Mrs Villiers said.

She added local authorities had to identify any funding as it was a local scheme but the next major local transport schemes budget could be one source of cash.

“I am advised that a scheme could conceivably be implemented by December 2016.”