Rail lines which were closed during the Beeching cuts in the 1960s could be reopened and some big franchises split up under Government plans.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said he wants to open up routes which would encourage housebuilding, ease overcrowding and boost the economy.
The proposals also include splitting up the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise serving London and parts of the south east in 2021.
Great Western – serving the South West and South Wales and currently run by First Group – could also be broken up under the plans.
But Labour has dismissed the plans as “unambitious” – with transport campaigners warning it is “desperately difficult to reopen a rail line”.
Thousands of stations and hundreds of local rail lines were closed down between 1964 and 1970 on the recommendation of the then British Railways chairman Dr Richard Beeching.
The Government’s rail strategy, which includes restoring lost capacity, is being published on Wednesday.
Image: Thousands of stations were axed at Dr Richard Beeching’s recommendation
Mr Grayling told Sky News: “I certainly want to start the process of bringing back into use some of the lines that disappeared from passenger use about 50 years ago – and where there’s a real need now.
“If you look for example around Bristol, where you’ve got an over-crowded city, lots of traffic in the city centre, there’s a desperate need to improve suburban rail routes.
“And we’ve got a lot of routes that have been taken out of passenger service for a long time, which I want to see re-enter service in the years ahead and we’re working to try and achieve that.”
But he admitted re-opening some routes would be “problematic” and “very expensive”.
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Image: Chris Grayling says reopening closed branches will boost the economy
The Department for Transport (DfT) has pledged to “accelerate” the reopening of the railway between Oxford and Cambridge.
Last week’s Budget confirmed Network Rail will be handed funding to deliver phase two of the western section of East West Rail, from Bicester to Bedford, and Milton Keynes to Princes Risborough, with plans to open in 2023.
The East West Rail Company will be set up as an independent entity to deliver the central section between Bedford and Cambridge to open in the mid-2020s.
Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said the plan to reopen lines is “more jam tomorrow from a Government which has run out of ideas”.
He said: “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.”
Image: Campaigners say reopening defunct railway lines is ‘desperately difficult’
Bruce Williamson, from campaign group Railfuture, welcomed the plans and said where lines have been reopened they have “generally speaking exceeded all expectations”.
Last year Mr Grayling said he wants publicly owned Network Rail to share its responsibility for running tracks with private train operators.