Fifty Years of Beeching

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of British Railways. There can’t be many government reports whose author’s name is so widely known. Even those with little or no interest in railways will have heard of Beeching and his axe. Even after fifty years, the report remains controversial.

Before applying any hindsight, let’s put the report into context. By the early 1960s, Britain’s railways were incurring ever mounting losses. An ill-conceived modernisation plan hatched in the 1950s had been botched. Rising car ownership, changing holiday patterns, growing road haulage and the building of motorways, all these caused traffic to haemorrhage from the railways. They came to be regarded as old-fashioned and inefficient. With a sense that “something must be done”, the government appointed Beeching to turn the railway finances around. To be fair to him, he was given a narrow remit, and he stuck to it: railways were a business not a service, so services, lines or stations that lost money would be closed. Social utility was not considered.

The report was dominated by its proposal to close over 5000 miles of railway and over 2500 stations. Before looking at this is in more detail, it must be admitted that the report did have some positives. It recommended that rail freight should adopt containerisation, should confine itself to bulk loads known as block trains, as this is where railways will always be more efficient than roads. He also introduced the concept of the merry-go-round train for moving coal between colliery and power station: bulk trains are loaded and unloaded on the move using specially designed wagons and without the need for large marshalling yards. All three of these practices have survived and are flourishing. He also brought improvements in management practice and financial control.

No one could reasonably argue against such improvements: the railways needed to modernise in order to survive. The same cannot be said for the closure programme. Its contention was that the network had to shrink in order to return to profitability. The effectiveness, or otherwise, of this, has been much debated since. In fact, mass closures were not new: during the 1950s, around 3000 miles of line were closed, and Beeching continued with this policy. A major criticism of the closures is that little or no attempts were made to make them run more cheaply. Such measures as using diesel multiple units, unstaffing stations, automation of signalling and level crossings and so on. Yes, this would have required investment, but if it had been coupled with better marketing, cheap fare deals and trains run at convenient times, things could have been different. In most cases, lines were closed unmodernised, retaining steam operation and the full paraphernalia of a Victorian railway to the end.

As I’ve stated, Beeching did not consider the social utility of any service, nor of the hardship that would be caused by its closure. (This was only allowed for much later, after the 1968 Transport Act, which saw such useful but loss-making services receive subsidies. While welcome, it came too late for many lines). The report promised that trains would be replaced with buses, what has come to be known as bustitution. Most of these replacements stopped within two years because of low usage. In an environment where people were already disposed to use their cars, they were highly unlikely to use a bus that was slower and more inconvenient that the train it had replaced. Beeching also dismissed the idea that a branch line provided feeder traffic for a main line: he believed that people would drive to their nearest railhead. This also turned out to be a nonsense, as if you were already using the car, why not drive the whole way?

Included in the closure programme was the idea of the elimination of duplicate routes. Perhaps there was some sense to this. For example, several of the South Wales valleys had two or more lines running into them, built by separate companies competing for the same traffic. However, there is a bigger picture, arguably missed or ignored by Beeching. If a line is temporarily closed for any reason – repair work, flooding etc – trains can be diverted along a duplicate line. Even in normal running, the second line may serve different towns and can act as a relief to the other line. The famous Settle and Carlisle line and the “Joint” line between Peterborough and Doncaster are good examples of this.

However, is Beeching the true villain here? Yes, he compiled the report, as he had been instructed to do. He proposed, but it was the politicians who implemented. Though commissioned by a Tory government, the bulk of the closures were carried out by Labour, including many that weren’t in the report (e.g. Oxford to Cambridge). This was despite a pledge to halt the programme made when they were in opposition. Political considerations ruled the day: the Central Wales line survived because it ran through several marginal constituencies, while large towns like Mansfield lost their rail service.

I suppose it’s too easy to fall prey to nostalgia and hindsight. The enthusiast in me mourns the loss of so many lines, but it also mourns train types I liked. That goes with the interest, but I can put it aside. I don’t believe it is entirely hindsight to be critical of the report. London suffered from traffic jams even then, yet no one foresaw that the growth in car ownership would cause this problem to spread to other towns and cities. Towns and cities that lost local stations and suburban lines under Beeching. It isn’t just nostalgia either. The railways are today carrying record numbers of passengers, (despite eye-wateringly high fares). How many more could there have been if some of the lines shut by Beeching had survived? That is something we can speculate on until the bovines return to their dwellings. It’s significant, however, that some lines have indeed reopened, and very successfully: Mansfield, Alloa, Bathgate, Ebbw Vale, Aberdare and Larkhall to name a few.

While commendable, these remain exceptions, not the rule. Many lines that could be useful stand little chance of reopening thanks to the failure to protect their alignments. So many have been ploughed up, built on, swallowed by roads etc. Take the Penrith to Keswick line: how useful would that be now?

While some closures were possibly inevitable, I believe the report went too far. It was a short-sighted, short-term solution that lacked true vision and wrongly saw no future for a lot of the network. Its failure to allow for social utility was a grave error, the consequences of which we are still living with.

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One Response to “Fifty Years of Beeching”

  1. Cornwall Cut Off | Rants and Gallivants Says:

    […] I wrote in my essay on the Beeching Report last year, one of the report’s aims was to eliminate what it saw as duplicate routes. The Okehampton […]

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