IT is the multi-million pound project that will bring Southampton’s railway network up to standard.

A total of 30 new sets of points will be added between Southampton Central and Redbridge stations to improve the reliability of trains at a cost of £20million.

But thousands of train passengers could have their travel plans thrown into chaos as the improvement project starts today.

The work will see every service through Southampton Central cancelled on weekends from March 16 to May 4 and the line between Southampton Central and Brockenhurst will be closed today and tomorrow.

Now fears have been raised Southampton will get a reputation as a “city of disruption” as the work effectively cuts the station off the network at weekends.

It comes after drivers were caught up in traffic chaos several times since the turn of the year by a long-running roadworks project near the docks.

Indeed if you type the words “traffic chaos” into Internet search engine Google the first option it offers is “traffic chaos Southampton”.

Councillor Royston Smith, the city’s Tory group leader and parliamentary candidate for Southampton Itchen, has even called for rail passengers to be allowed to travel half price to soften the blow of having to use replacement bus services until the work is finished on May 4.

He told the Daily Echo: “We have had significant disruption in Southampton that could have been avoided, such as the problem with the roads with the cruise ships in and when the football is on. We are going to have more disruption on the back of that.

“When you have disruption on top of disruption you build up a reputation that Southampton is a difficult place to get to.

“I understand you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs and it has to be done, but if passengers are going to be affected let them travel half price.”

However Jim Morgan, infrastructure director at Network Rail and the South West Trains Alliance, which is carrying out the work, said the work was down to the success of Southampton as a city.

Nick Farthing, from Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, agrees.

He argued that while the work will cause inconvenience at weekends, it shows there is an economic buzz around Southampton.

He said: “It is obvious there will be some disruption but once completed, the railway will be more resilient and robust and allow even more passenger and freight traffic through the city, freeing up capacity for business and others that have to be on the roads “The impact on the city of Southampton will no doubt be felt during the works but I don’t feel this will detract from people wishing to visit, shop, or stay in the city.

“There are some great things going on in the area at the moment – the Arts Quarter under way, Royal Pier signed up, Watermark West Quay starting this summer, new developments taking place in Ocean Village, St Mary’s, the city centre and at the City Gateway at Swaythling, to mention a few.

“A good sign of a local economy is the number of |construction cranes in position – take a look across the city skyline to see how well we are doing.”

As reported by the Daily Echo, concerns have been raised that the closures will have impact on businesses in the city, and 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.

Latest Office of Rail Regulator (ORR) national figures show that rail passenger numbers in Southampton increased by 2.4 per cent during 2012 and 2013 – and continues to increase year on year.

Southampton Itchen MP John Denham said investment in Southampton railway infrastructure was vital to cope with increasing numbers of rail users.

He said: “Catching a train from central station it’s obvious to see there is pressure there with more people travelling.

“We have got to remember that people travelling on South West Trains pay a very high price. The work is essentially being paid for by passengers while paying out a lot of money to the Treasury at the same time.

“It is good to see investment but with rising fares going up faster than wages, passengers need to get a fair deal out of this.”

Chris Bluemel, Green Party candidate for the Freemantle ward, said: “The Southampton and District Green Party welcomes the news that passenger numbers have grown in the Southampton area, and the investment by Network Rail into the track infrastructure.

“It is regrettable that this will mean that the line will have to close on some weekends, but we accept that this is unavoidable.

“We would call on all of the train operators to ensure |that the replacement bus services are as efficient |and easy for passengers to |use as possible.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “The line is fit for purpose – it carries millions of people every week – but obviously from time to time requires maintenance and upgrades to keep it that way.

“Our railway network gets busier every year and we work hard to keep it running safely and reliably.

“There will always be the need to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure and, as ever, any work which involves disruption to passengers will be communicated in advance to keep disruption to a minimum.

“More than anything, the changes passengers are likely to notice most in the years ahead centre on the plans to improve the area in and around the station itself.”