SOUTHAMPTON could enjoy new rail links to places across the Midlands and the north if high-speed rail goes ahead, experts have claimed.

The much-criticised £42.6bn HS2 project has the potential to transform rail travel by freeing up space on existing lines, the Network Rail study found.

Among the 100 towns and cities in line to benefit are Southampton and Winchester, it said.

Among the new services that will become possible are:

• Southampton to Manchester – via Winchester, Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes and Stoke.

• Southampton to the north-east – extra stops at Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby or Leicester, on a new “electric spine” that is already proposed.

The Manchester route would become possible because existing services between London Euston and Manchester would no longer be needed. Network Rail hailed the potential of HS2 to “fundamentally reshape our railway in a way that incremental improvements simply cannot deliver”.

It said: “We have squeezed every last incremental improvement out of what we’ve got.

“As demand continues to grow, this becomes harder and in some places impossible. That is why we need High Speed 2.

“It will deliver much-needed extra capacity on the busiest rail lines and help boost economic growth, by transforming connectivity between our biggest cities.”

In June, three Hampshire MPs – Julian Lewis (New Forest East), Steve Brine (Winchester) and Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) – all attempted to derail HS2.

They were among 27 Conservative MPs who forced a Commons vote, demanding further information on the route and the costs, on a paving Bill.

Dr Lewis said he remained a sceptic, adding: “It is still a huge amount of money to invest in something at a time when the country is struggling.

“I’m not opposed in principle to building modern infrastructure like this. If the economy was booming, I might regard it as sensible – but it’s a strange sense of priorities.”

But Network Rail said rail journeys had increased by almost 50 per cent over the past decade – with another 400 million rail journeys a year expected by 2020.

However, the likely improvements for Southampton and most other places will not arrive until phase two of HS2 is completed, in 2033.

Network Rail stressed that fares on HS2 must be in line with those on the existing network in order for that spare capacity to be released.

HS2 will deliver 225mph trains from London to Birmingham by 2026 – and a Y-shaped network, on to Leeds and Manchester, seven years later.

The second phase will slash the Leeds to London journey time from 2hrs 12mins to just 1hr 22mins – and the Leeds to Birmingham time will be cut to just 57 mins from 1hr 58mins.