An historic railway line closed in 1966 could be re-opened to prevent meltdown on the overcrowded West Coast Main Line under proposals being considered by the Department for Transport.

Ministers and officials are to look at re-opening the Great Central Main Line, which ran from London's Marylebone Station to Manchester via Rugby in Warwickshire. An extension linking it to Birmingham is expected to be added if the project goes ahead.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly confirmed in a statement to the Commons that she was considering re-opening old rail lines to link London to Birmingham.

It is one of the options being examined following warnings that the West Coast Main Line could run out of capacity as soon as 2015, despite an £8.6 billion upgrade.

Rail experts said the Great Central Main Line, also known as the London Extension of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, would be the obvious choice.

It opened in 1899 as the brainchild of entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin, who hoped it would one day be linked to a Channel Tunnel.

But most of the line was closed in 1966 as part of the cuts to the rail network recommended by Dr Richard Beeching. A skeleton service between Rugby and Nottingham survived until 1969.

The line could now come back to life as the Government looks for ways to reduce congestion on the vital London to Birmingham to Manchester corridor.

Other options on the table include a new high-speed rail line, with trains running at up to 200mph. However, it has been estimated that this could cost as much as £30 billion, while re-opening an existing line would be significantly cheaper.

Rail experts said a high-speed line would be designed to provide an alternative for people who currently use short-haul flights between London and other UK destinations.

But extra capacity is urgently needed to cope with existing growth in rail passenger numbers, without attracting new ones.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Kelly said: "I retain an open mind whether or not we need, for example, to re-open a disused rail line between London and Birmingham, whether we should have a high speed rail link which links London to Birmingham, or even beyond to Manchester or so forth, or indeed whether other modes of transport should be encouraged such as roads."

A recent Government paper went further, saying: "At present, the balance of advantage would appear to favour new services running at conventional speeds and operating on an existing disused alignment between London and Birmingham."

Train operators Chiltern Railways launched its own, unsuccessful proposals to get the line re-opened in 2000. Another firm, Central Railway , drew up plans to use the line for freight transport, extending it to Liverpool and linking it directly with France via the Channel Tunnel, but these failed to win Government backing. The Department of Transport last night would not speculate on the specific track which might be used.

But Lord Snape, a former director of Travel West Midlands, former Labour transport spokesman and an ex-railway worker, said: "It would be the Great Central. Much of it is still there, and there have been long-running proposals to make use of it again."

The peer, who was MP for West Bromwich East for 27 years, added: "The West Coast Main Line will be full to bursting before long, and we need to do something about that. But I fear that when ministers talk about grand schemes many years down the line, they rarely happen."

Paul Fullwood, West Midlands spokesman for Passenger Focus, the statutory independent rail watchdog, said: "There have been proposals to use Great Central and add a spur into Birmingham.

"It is worth looking at. Re-opening an existing line would be cheaper and happen more quickly than building a new high-speed line."

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said the Government's immediate priority was to increase capacity on the current network, but other issues such as re-opening disused lines would be examined in the longer term.

The spokesman added: "However, this is not something we will decide on now."