Gatwick's long-awaited “crucial” new £53 million platform has been opened. Transport Minister Baroness Kramer formally opened Platform 7 and its associated facilities this morning, signalling the first step in a “major redevelopment” of the lynch-pin airport station.

Rail chiefs hope the new platform will improve services for passengers going to the airport, and will unblock a bottleneck on the Brighton main line.

The ceremony marked the culmination of more than £80 million of investment in the line over the New Year.

It also marked a triumph over adversity for rail operator Network Rail, whose workers battled through the recent storms and floods to finish the major project on time and on budget, as well as renewing signalling equipment at London Victoria, and replacing rails at Stoats Nest Junction, near Purley.

Baroness Kramer said: “Gatwick makes a vital contribution to the UK economy and we must make sure facilities are upgraded for the benefit of passengers. “That is why we have committed a further £50 million towards the complete redevelopment of the station.”

She added: “ I am delighted to open this new platform and thank staff for their work during horrendous weather."

Tim Robinson, Network Rail’s route managing director for Sussex, said: “Managing growth is a challenge, but a good one to have. “Gatwick Airport is significant not just as an important station for passengers, but an important part of the UK’s infrastructure. “We recognise that and this £53 million investment is crucial to keep trains flowing and improve the experience of passengers from all stations in the region.” More than a third of Gatwick Airport’s 35 million passengers a year arrive by train, and that figure is expected to rise, along with demand along the railway in Sussex. Growth on the line is currently hitting 7% per year and is expected to go up by 22% by 2020.

Chris Burchell, managing director of Southern, which provides services in south London, between central London and the South coast, through East and West Sussex, Surrey and parts of Kent and Hampshire, said: “Running around 2,300 train services per day over some of Britain’s most congested track is always a challenge. “This major investment will improve the flexibility and reliability of the network in this critical section of the Brighton Mainline. “ He said: “As a result, passengers should see an improved travelling experience to accompany our other efforts to drive up service quality on our trains and stations.”

Gatwick Airport Station, which is operated by Southern and also served by First Capital Connect, is directly linked to 129 stations, and a further 700 can be reached with just one change.

Stewart Wingate, London Gatwick chief executive, said: “London Gatwick is already the best connected UK airport by rail and this upgrade will benefit the broad range of people that the airport station attracts, from tourists to the business traveller.”

He said: “ It will allow us to compete even more for passengers and airlines wanting to come to London and the South-east region.”

He added: “This is the first step in our vision for a further major redevelopment of the airport station – the Gatwick Gateway. “We recognised that with over 14 million people arriving or departing by rail, that an investment had to be made to improve the passenger experience in and around the airport.”

First Capital Connect managing director David Statham, said: "The Brighton Main Line is one of the busiest routes in the UK and the new platform at Gatwick is fantastic news for passengers. “This part of the line can be frustrating, particularly during disruption, and this work should mean fewer delays."

The new station platform is the latest in a long line of developments and improvements at Gatwick, the UK’s second largest airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world.

Its current owners, Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), the majority shareholder of a group of international investment funds, unveiled a £1 billion programme of improvements designed to transform the passenger experience at Gatwick in 2010. Since then, Gatwick has scored a string of airport firsts and innovations, including the opening of Jamie Oliver's first airport restaurant and a Harrods branch, has won a number of key international routes, and has had millions of pounds worth of improvements already spent on it.