PLANS for a £1 billion rail project to link Southampton with the UK’s biggest airport have taken a step closer to reality.

Heathrow Southern Railway (HSR) has received a seven figure investment from multinational engineering firm AECOM to help develop a new rail access scheme at Heathrow Airport.

The new route includes a new 13km track to run alongside the M25 from the west side of the Terminal 5 station to Chertsey,w here it would connect with the South Western Main Line.

The project could also see direct access to the airport from towns including Basingstoke, Weybridge, Guildford and Woking, with a view to eventually connecting Southampton.

Heathrow is currently inaccessible by direct trains with passengers having to rely on services such as the Heathrow RailAir link from Woking. HSR claims that the project will ease crowding on the South Western main line and London Underground.

Baroness Jo Valentine, chairwoman of HSR, said: “Coming from such an internationally respected organisation as AECOM, this funding represents a significant vote of confidence in our project.

“This is a significant step forward for the Heathrow Southern Railway, which will be fully financed privately – at no net cost to the taxpayers – and could be operational by as early as 2024.”

The announcement has been welcomed by Hampshire Transport bosses.

Mark Miller, chairman of the planning and transport committee at Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, said: “Any rail improvements to connectivities to regionally and internationally important airports are vital for our business communities and the growing leisure markets in general for Hampshire.

“The strategic road network is near capacity and so journey choices via public transport are always welcomed and supported.”

Royston Smith, MP for Southampton Itchen, said: “Any additional capacity on our railway network is to be welcomed. Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world and is due to expand further. Part of its environmental challenge is to cut emissions and fewer car journeys would certainly help to achieve that.”

Caroline Dineage, MP for Gosport , said: “Hampshire has long called for better rail services to Heathrow, and I hope HSR’s exciting proposals will be given very serious consideration.”