NEW train operators will be tasked with making major improvements to the region's rail network - including replacing the unpopular Pacers, a senior Government official has told rail experts.

However, the likelihood of the improvements being paid for by increased fares looks to have risen with a consultation on the future of the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express franchises revealing an apparent public appetite for price hikes.

Julie Mills, rail project director at the Department for Transport (DfT), told a seminar on the future of the North's rail network this evening (Wednesday, November 19) that a consultation on the two franchises had received a "phenomenal" 20,000 responses.

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She said the key messages taken on board by DfT was that the network had a vital social role to play - and that people wanted rid of the Pacer trains used on many Northern Rail routes.

She said the invitation to tender documents due to be sent out to short-listed firms next month would ask for "innovative and exciting" changes.

Ms Mills added that the new Northern franchisee would be expected to put forward plans to replace the Pacers, with both contractors expected to tackle overcrowding and improve the quality of service to passengers.

"Standing still is simply not an option for the next franchises," she said.

However, on the controversial subject of price hikes she said that about 50 per cent of respondents to the consultation had shown an appetite for fair increases - if they paid for specific improvements.

The seminar at the National Rail Museum in York tonight (Wednesday) entitled, A better railway for the North, was organised by the Campaign for Better Transport and the museum.

Alex Hynes, managing director of Northern Rail, told the event that the difference between the quality of trains in the North and South was getting wider, adding that the country needed to change its rolling stock strategy and buy more diesel trains.

Ms Mills accepted that more diesels were needed and revealed that the DfT was starting to sound out manufactures.

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said it was vital that passengers now lobbied their MP.

"We need people to tell their MPs that they want these improvements - to get rid of the Pacers, to see high investment and to get a much better rail network for the North of England."

A protest by members of the RMT union took place outside the museum before the event.

Rail Minister Claire Perry was due to attend the event but cancelled to attend a vote in the Commons.