The promoters of the scheme, Central Railway, aim to open the 320-mile link in 2006 and claim it could capture up to 40 per cent of the market, equivalent to an estimated 36 million tonnes. It would also handle some passenger trains.
A nine-month consultation period among businesses and households along the line of the route has been launched and Central Railway intends to submit formal proposals to Parliament next summer.
The scheme is the brainchild of Andrew Gritten, a former member of a right-wing think-tank who has been promoting the idea for the past 10 years.
Central Railway's previous scheme for a 180-mile freight link to the tunnel from the M1/M6 junction near Leicester, failed after being thrown out by MPs at the end of the last Parliament. But Mr Gritten said the new route was very different and was being considered in a completely new political light.
"The fact that the Government has placed so much emphasis on moving freight and passengers from road to rail makes the Central Railway proposal highly attractive," he said.
About 15 miles of the route would be in tunnels under London and the North Downs but the rest of the link would run on existing or refurbished lines. The previous scheme would have involved the demolition of 70 properties and affected a further 600-700 properties.
The group is not seeking direct funding for the project from the Government and said that about 70 per cent of the total cost, including financing charges, would be debt and the remainder equity.
Central Railway was formed in 1991 and has about 300 shareholders, the largest of which is the consulting engineer Mott McDonald and the project engineer Parsons, both of which have 10 per cent stakes.
The scheme is being put forward under the Transport and Works Act covering projects of national importance. If Parliament gives the go-ahead, this would be followed by an 18- month planning inquiry. Construction would start in 2002 and take just over four years.