Rail services lost under the Beeching cuts could be restored to increase jobs and growth, under plans drawn up by the transport secretary to expand the rail network.
The government will invite proposals to reopen lines that were closed down following reports by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s, or under later British Rail cuts in the 1970s.
But Labour pointed out that no additional money or firm schemes had been announced and the government recently culled major rail upgrades, including the electrification of lines in the Midlands and Wales.
The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said: “Many commuter services are full and getting busier and passengers know how much pressure the network is under … We need to expand our network to unlock jobs and housing growth across the country.”
Plans were being accelerated to reopen the railway line from Oxford to Cambridge, branded East West Rail, he said, which the government hopes will involve private sector funding to support the construction of thousands of new homes.
“Now I want to see how we can expand other parts of the network to help make Britain fit for the future,” Grayling said.
He said the government would seek to work with local partners to develop proposals for similar schemes, which would need to demonstrate strong business cases to receive state funds.
The Beeching cuts, prompted by two reports by the then British Rail chairman, led to more than 4,000 miles of track being taken out of the network. Road transport, especially for freight, was seen as a more efficient future option.
Grayling’s offer to reverse some of those cuts will be set out in a rail strategy plan published on Wednesday, which will also detail changes to some current routes, expected to include the breakup of the biggest commuter franchise run by Govia Thameslink Railway, which covers the troubled Southern.
The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, dismissed the strategy as “reannouncements and unfunded proposals”.
“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,” he said.
Transport campaigners gave the news a cautious welcome. Stephen Joseph, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said looking to connect communities and support jobs and housing was “great news”, but added: “It is desperately difficult to reopen a rail line.
“This announcement needs to be backed both with new investment and a commitment to guiding local authorities through the sometimes labyrinthine processes of the railway.”
Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, said the move would be “just more broken promises”.
“It’s more than a bit rich for Chris Grayling to talk about expanding rail capacity in the distant future when the reality is that today he is cutting back on rail electrification and staffing,” he said.
Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the drivers’ union Aslef, said: “We would be pleased to see the lines cut by Beeching restored.
“[But] refining or extending the failed franchising system, for example by encouraging more open access operators, will only make an already overly complicated system worse, not better.”