IT is the £500million railway which could transform Hampshire’s economic fortunes.

A new rail link directly connecting the county to Heathrow Airport would slash journey times and see business opportunities soar.

Now the ambitious project is a step closer after Network Rail announced its chosen route for the multimillion pound scheme.

The project involves building a spur connecting the London airport with the Great Western Mainline – which branches down towards the county on its way to Bristol and South Wales.

It would cut journey times from Southampton to Heathrow from an hour and 45 minutes to an hour and 23minutes by 2021.

Currently passengers must travel into London Paddington before doubling back on themselves to reach the airport.

Two years ago the scheme was included in part of the Government’s list of rail projects – with ministers committed to investing the cash. Network Rail considered four separate routes before making its final decision.

The chosen route involves branching off the mainline east of Langley, near Slough, Berkshire, with new tracks and a 5KM (3.2mile) tunnel running to Heathrow’s Terminal Five where platforms have already been built.

The airport combines direct and transfer passengers to support 78 per cent of all UK long-haul flights.

Its leaders claim businesses trade 20 times more with countries they can reach via a direct, frequent flight.

Southampton City Council transport and environment cabinet member Jacqui Rayment hailed the plans as “encouraging” and added: “Given Southampton’s easy access to Reading by rail, this will help to make us a more attractive investment opportunity for new and existing businesses, by further reinforcing our status as a major international gateway for the UK.”

Airport chief executive Colin Matthews said it will open up new opportunities for trade and added: “Network Rail’s plans will enhance Southampton’s links to global markets, and that is good news for the local economy.

“Heathrow is already the bestplaced British airport for the UK as a whole and we are delighted we will be faster to get to for passengers and businesses.”

The project is expected to generate more than £2 billion in economic benefits to the UK and 40,000 new jobs and one million fewer car journeys.