Rail groups have welcomed a series of reforms designed to improve the network, but Labour and trade unions responded by repeating their demands for the railways to be brought back into public ownership.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said passengers' priorities are reliable, punctual journeys that offer value for money.

"They will welcome plans that will help deliver this for them," he said.

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"We're pleased to see that Government is listening to what passengers want and making that the main focus, in particular the emphasis on boosting day-to-day reliability."

Bruce Williamson, of campaign group Railfuture, claimed the suggestion that lines could reopen was evidence that the Government is "finally recognising the need to invest in rail".

He told the Press Association: "When you hear about transport investment it almost always means more road-building. Let's hope that there is a stronger emphasis on rail this time.

"The demand is there. Where reopenings have happened, particularly in Scotland, they have, generally speaking, exceeded all expectations."

The reopening of a line between the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh in September 2015 proved popular with passengers and a campaign has been launched to extend the route to Carlisle.

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, warned that it is "desperately difficult to reopen a rail line".

He said the announcement needs to be backed with new investment and a commitment to guiding local authorities through the "sometimes labyrinthine processes of the railway".

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne described proposals to share responsibility for managing trains and tracks as a "positive move".

He said: ''Bringing track and train closer together is the right direction, and one we have been advocating for some time and is woven into our plans for the next five-year funding period, as we have seen the benefits and responsiveness this can give for our customers and for passengers."

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, representing the rail industry, said he was pleased the Government has "set out in its strategy a sensible evolution of the partnership railway".

Developing alliances between those responsible for trains and tracks will enable more trains to be run and punctuality to be improved, he added.

An East Coast Partnership will be created with responsibility for both intercity trains and track operations for the lines between London, Yorkshire, north-east England and Scotland.

The franchise is currently held by Virgin Trains East Coast, which is a partnership between Stagecoach and Virgin.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, said having a single rail infrastructure provider across Britain "doesn't work" and there needs to be greater local focus.

"The Secretary of State's announcement is a welcome move in this direction," he added.

First Group chief executive Tim O'Toole said the company is pleased that "our strong track record at GWR (Great Western Railway) is recognised" by the franchise being extended as the network is reformed.

A spokesman for Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) said: "GTR was created to deliver a large-scale, once-in-a-generation modernisation project and it was always understood that at the end of the franchise in 2021 an alternative model would be introduced."

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald described the proposals to reopen lines as "more jam tomorrow from a Government which has run out of ideas".

He went on: "The Tories' record is of delayed, downgraded and cancelled investment, huge disparities in regional transport spending and soaring fares that are pricing passengers off the railway.

"This unambitious strategy stands in contrast to Labour's plan to upgrade and expand the rail network across the country."

With the cost of regulated fares such as season tickets and standard returns increasing by 3.6% in the new year, Mick Cash, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, claimed it is "no good building new lines if no-one can afford to travel on them".

He pledged to "step up the campaign for public ownership", claiming the plan to split franchises is a "massive admission of failure".

Manuel Cortes, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said Britain badly needed a new strategic plan for the railways.

"But under (Transport Secretary Chris) Grayling, trains grow more overcrowded, with passengers paying higher fares to privatised companies belonging mostly to the governments of Holland, Germany, Italy and France," he added.

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