IT WAS closed more than 40 years ago as part of the biggest cut in train services the country has ever seen.

But now new moves to reopen a Hampshire rail route that was axed have taken a major step forward.

Hampshire County Council has agreed to fund a study into reintroducing passenger trains on the Totton to Hythe branch line.

It was closed in 1966 as a result of the controversial Beeching cuts.

Experts have already established a business case for reopening the single-track line, currently used by freight trains serving Fawley oil refinery.

The viability study will look into what work is needed to restore passenger services.

It will also assess the likely level of demand and pinpoint possible sources of funding for the £3m project.

The plan was put forward three years ago as part of a £73m scheme to improve rail links across the New Forest.

A report published by the Association of Train Operating Companies said the Brockenhurst to Ringwood line should also be restored.

But that proposal, which would mean re-laying the track and building a new station in Ringwood, has since been shunted into the sidings.

Re-opening the Totton to Hythe line would ease the pressure on the A326 and other traffic- choked roads in the Waterside area.

Councillor Mel Kendal, the county council’s executive member for environment and transport, said constructive talks had already taken place with Network Rail and South West Trains.

He added: “The outcome of the earlier study has enabled us to develop a business case for the development of the Waterside line.

“However, there’s still a great deal of technical work to be done and detail to be worked through so we’re still some years away from opening the line to passengers. Nonetheless what we have established so far is encouraging.”

Supporters of the project include county councillor David Harrison, who represents Marchwood and Totton South.

He said: “A passenger railway line linking Southampton with Totton, Marchwood and Hythe would be terrific and I’m sure very popular.

My one big reservation is the potential impact on the train gates in Junction Road, Totton.”

Cllr Harrison said the busy level crossing was already closed to traffic for a total of 20 minutes every hour.