THOUSANDS of train passengers have seen their travel plans thrown into chaos by two months of weekend line closures at Southampton Central railway station.
Lines running through the station will be cancelled and replaced by buses as part of a £20million improvement project.
But business leaders and civic chiefs have hit out at the closures, which will see every service going through Southampton Central cancelled on weekends from March 16 to May 4.
They have asked for a rethink, saying they are concerned about the impact on businesses in the city, fans going to and from Saints matches and events taking place in Southampton.
The work will see 30 new sets of points added between Southampton Central and Redbridge stations, which the Network Rail and South West Trains Alliance says will “improve the reliability of trains.”
They say there has been a huge increase in the number of people using trains at the station over the past ten years, and with more than six million using it every year that is increasing the strain on infrastructure.
The line closures will start this weekend, with the line between Southampton Central and Brockenhurst closed on Saturday (Mar 8) and Sunday (Mar 9).
That line will also be closed the following Saturday, March 15, and on every weekend day from March 16 to May 4 there will be no lines running in and out of Southampton Central.
Network Rail and South West Trains Alliance's infrastructure director, Jim Morgan, said; "This is a vital programme of investment to improve the reliability of train services for Southampton and the surrounding region.
“We recognise that this is not ideal and we are sorry for the inevitable disruption that will be caused to our passengers. We have sought to keep disruption to a minimum whilst we undertake this essential work.”
There are concerns that the closures could have an impact on businesses in the city, while people travelling by train to events including the Sainsbury's Sport Relief Mile, Easter Fair and St George's Day parade will all face disruption.
And the closures will also affect fans travelling to and from Saints matches both home and away in all but the team's final game, at home to Manchester United.
City council leader Simon Letts said: “It is disappointing that there will be so much disruption to the travelling public over such a prolonged period of time.
“I urge Network Rail and South West Trains to have a rethink to see if the job can be done quicker and to consider operating a full service on Saints match days as the season comes to a climax.”
Chief executive of Business South, Sally Lynskey, said: “While we do appreciate this work is very necessary and it will eventually benefit visitors arriving by rail to the city, it does seem unfortunate that there needs to be so many closures over such a long period of time.
"City retailers have been contending with the bad weather since the start of the year so we hope this disruption to rail services won't have a detrimental effect on their takings in the coming weeks."
Claire Gilbert from the University of Southampton's Student Union, is helping to organise the Sport Relief Mile, said: “I think it may have an impact on people getting to the race, it may mean people have to take extra time to get to their places on time.”
And William Cole, who runs the Easter Fair which will take place in The Common from April 17 to 27, said: “If it's necessary then I suppose they have to do it, but no time is a good time for businesses.
“But personally I would rather the closures weren't in place when the fair was here.”
Rail travel watchdog Passenger Focus, believe that the work was necessary but it is not a good time for commuters.
Mike Hewitson, Passenger Focus's head of policy, said: “There is never a 'good time' to do engineering work because someone will always lose out. However, most passengers understand that it is necessary to ensure the railway continues to be safe and reliable.”
Panel: How the closures will affect rail travellers Starting on Saturday, anyone using the route between Southampton Central and Brockenhurst will have to take a rail-replacement bus service on weekends until May 4.
Fast buses will run between Airport Parkway and Bournemouth, while buses will also run on local journeys between Airport Parkway, Brockenhurst, Eastleigh and Southampton Central.
The work will not affect the line between Southampton Central and London Waterloo until March 16, when services will end at Southampton Airport Parkway instead.
A rail replacement bus service will then transport passengers to Southampton Central and up to Bournemouth.
Services to Portsmouth will start and terminate at St Denys during the work.
The South West Trains service between Salisbury and Romsey via Southampton Central and Eastleigh while only run between Salisbury and Romsey.
First Great Western services will call at Eastleigh and Chandler's Ford instead of Southampton Central.