A £5 billion rail network expansion programme to reach the most disconnected and disadvantaged communities by reopening closed lines and repurposing freight routes has been proposed by campaigners.

An estimated 500,000 people would be brought within walking distance of a station under the scheme unveiled by the Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT), which suggests the creation of 33 new lines.

The group says the expansion would reach “well over” 100 council wards identified as disadvantaged, create or safeguard thousands of jobs and support efforts to improve air quality by reducing the number of journeys made by road.

Proposed rail expansion, reopened and repurposed lines(PA Graphics)

Estimates for the cost of the project begin at £4.8 billion – a fraction of the £55.7 billion budget set for for HS2.

The campaign’s chief executive Darren Shirley said: “Expanding the railways would transform the opportunities for people living in some of the most deprived areas of the country, giving them greater access to employment and services and providing a much-needed boost to local economies.

“The Government should invest in a nationally led programme of expansion of the railway to help disadvantaged communities and tackle regional inequalities; reduce carbon emissions and air pollution; and create better and healthier places to live.”

About a third of Britain’s railway network, some 5,000 route miles, was given the chop as a result of the infamous Beeching Report in the 1960s.

Then, the railways carried about 975 million passengers a year, whereas the the figure now is about 1.7 billion.

Richard BeechingDr Richard Beeching led a major review of Britain’s railways in the 1960s (PA)

The reopening scheme would see about 350 miles added to the passenger rail network, consisting of 166 miles of reopened route and 177 miles of freight-only route upgraded to passenger rail standards.

According to the campaign, the expansion would create:

– 72 new stations.

– Up to 20 million additional passenger journeys.

– 6,500 jobs in construction and engineering and 1,650 new railway jobs.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, said the scheme would ultimately pay for itself via the benefits it would generate for society.

“For years politicians have been talking up the benefits of reopening lines but few reach construction due to a lack of a national approach and public investment,” he said.

“That needs to change because there is an overwhelming case for a Government-backed national programme of public rail reopenings to help meet the huge economic, environmental and social challenges facing the UK.”