IN an unexpected twist Network Rail has postponed its controversial scheme to rebuild Ashfield Bridge near Romsey.

Traders had complained bitterly about the rail company’s decision to carry out the work, which would have involved closing the A27 into Romsey for several months, in the autumn, just before the lead-up to Christmas.

Now Network Rail has announced the work, originally scheduled to start in October, has been put off until next spring, following representations from traders, councils and Romsey’s MP Caroline Nokes.

Mrs Nokes met Network Rail officials last week and was given the news that the work has been delayed because of concerns from town traders who feared the road closure would seriously damage their businesses in the build-up to the festive season.

Mrs Nokes praised Network Rail for accommodating the wishes of traders.

She said there was no doubt the work was necessary, but added: “It is imperative that it is done in a manner which minimises disruption to the town and its traders.

“I am delighted that Network Rail has listened to local views and reacted accordingly. I very much appreciate its willingness to accommodate the crucial Christmas period by pushing the work back until spring 2012.”

The bridge must be rebuilt to allow new taller freight containers to pass underneath.

However, Railtrack were slated by town traders who said they were not consulted about the timing of the work.

Admitting, there’d been a change of direction by Network Rail, the company’s Wessex route managing-director, Richard O’Brien, said: “We have listened to the concerns of the people of Romsey and found an opportunity to reschedule the work for spring next year, which was their preferred alternative, in a way which does not delay the overall project, cause extra disruption for passengers or increase the costs to the taxpayer.

“We appreciate the constructive dialogue we have had with all the group and individuals with an interest in this project.”

Most traders have welcomed the news. Simon Troke, who runs Aroma in Market Place and is chairman of the Romsey Retailers Association, said: “This is fantastic news for traders and for people holding events in the town at Christmas. “Spring is a quieter period for us, so it is a better time to do the work. It won’t have such an impact on trade. Christmas is a crucial time for us and if the work had been done then businesses would have suffered badly.”

Although he welcomed Network Rail’s decision to defer the planned work until next year, vice-president of Romsey and District Chamber of Commerce, David Willox, was still critical.

Mr Willox said: “It does gives us some time to think about diversions and traffic signals that will be needed when the work is done.

“There was no consultation with us beforehand when the original plans were announced and the chamber wasn’t asked for its views. I hope the chamber will be fully consulted this time.”

The work is part of a £60 million programme to raise 17 bridges on the Salisbury to Southampton and Andover to Basingstoke lines. Other bridges affected include the Old Salisbury Lane bridge at Awbridge and Lee Drove bridge, at Lee.

Network Rail says the work will help remove 50,000 container lorries a year from the roads, ease traffic jams and lead to a quicker, greener and cheaper way of transporting goods around Britain.