A MAJOR upgrade of Southampton Port’s rail links with the industrial heartland of Britain will safeguard thousands of jobs, Hampshire industry bosses say.

Ministers say improved freight services from the city would keep key roads clear of trucks and help stimulate trade through the docks.

The investment was unveiled yesterday by Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Nick Clegg as part of a £9 billion national programme, as reported by the Daily Echo .

Associated British Ports Southampton director Doug Morrison, below right, said: “This will add another string in the Southampton port’s bow and give our customers a greater choice and that is what it is all about for us.

“The way we can grow business is to take business away from competing ports by offering the choice of carrying more freight.

“This has come as a pleasant surprise and I am delighted that the Government recognises Southampton as a key international gateway and that it is supporting us with proper infrastructure.”

The improvements for rail connections would also help the port’s customers from Britain’s booming car industry, which this year alone is exporting 25 per cent more cars through the port.

The plans were also welcomed by DP World Ports, which sees the move as essential to its plans to expand trade through its container terminal.

Berths 201 and 202 are being combined next year with a 500m quay wall upgraded to create a new fourth berth that will be able to handle super-sized container vessels.

DP World head of commercial Aart Hille Ris Lambers said: “We see this as great news, especially because it helps maintain our advantage over other ports and increase how much is taken by rail by 40 per cent and so take congestion off the road.”

Southampton docks-based Freightliner, which carries containers from the port to distribution hubs in the Midlands, said electrifying would boost its operations.

A spokesman said: “Rail freight demand in the UK is predicted to grow, so the announcements made today are fantastic news for rail freight and Southampton to enable the network to handle the predicted increases.”

Jimmy Chestnutt, chief executive of Hampshire Chamber of Commerce , said: “This will help with safeguarding jobs, create jobs and maybe upskill existing ones.”

The news was welcomed by city council leader Cllr Richard Williams, below left, who said it was crucial to capitalise on the success of Southampton docks as driver of the Hampshire economy.

But he questioned why it would take until 2014 to start the electrification work, which is expected to be complete by 2019.

He said: “The Government should get on with it in top gear. Announcements are one thing, action is another. My main concern is that we are missing an opportunity and holding back the recovery.”

A Department of Transport spokesman said: “There is a great deal of work involved. We want to get on with all these things as quickly as possible, but there is a great deal of preparation work for the scheme.”

A programme for rail improvements, released yesterday, said an electrified route between Southampton, the Midlands and the north was “a crucial step in creating the right conditions for significant private sector investment”.

The Government hopes the upgrade will take lorries off major roads as well as freeing up existing diesel trains to use on passenger services.

Caroline Nokes , Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North , said: “Improved freight links to and from Southampton can only be a good thing.

“This will benefit not only businesses but also local residents by reducing the number of HGVs on the roads. The environmental benefits are also substantial and I look forward to hearing further details.”

Alan Whitehead , Labour MP for Southampton Test , said new designs of containers meant upgrades were needed.

He said: “I am very keen that rail upgrading continues to and from the port of Southampton. It’s an essential part of rail investment to keep the same amount of freight travelling by rail, and that’s what is happening in Southampton.”