Archive for March, 2013

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Beeching revisited

Saturday, March 30 2013

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Britain’s railways before and after the Beeching cuts. Maps courtesy bildeberg.org, believed to have originally been prepared by the National Council on Inland Transport.

It cannot have escaped any of our UK-resident readers that Wednesday 27 March was the 50 anniversary of the publication of the infamous Beeching Report, The Reshaping of British Railways. There is little doubt, that Britain’s railways of the 1960s had to be reshaped – practices relating to the days of Stephenson’s Rocket needed streamlining, bureaucracy needed cutting, services – both passenger and freight – needed to be refocussed on the needs of the customer.

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Woodford Halse in the 1940s, a major locomotive repair workshop on the former Great Central Railway. Great Britain once had the densest railway network in the world. Map courtesy Old OS Maps.

But instead of rolling out ‘best practice’, Beeching up the railway network. In this he was encouraged by a pro-road Minister of Transport – Ernest Marples – and his pro-road advisers – the Stedford Committee. The underlying objective was to prune the railway network back to ‘make the railways pay’.

Unfortunately, much of the British Railway’s deficit was made up of interest charges and, however hard the network was pruned, this ‘cost’ remained. Strangely enough few people at the time noticed that a completely different cost convention was being applied to the road network. Nobody was demanding that the road network be made to pay, or that lightly used, or duplicate, roads be closed.

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Woodford Halse today. Trees and flooded ditches mark the route of former railways. Map courtesy Google Maps.

So half a century later how should the ‘Beeching Plan’ regarded today? Under the headline How Beeching got it wrong about Britain’s railways Robin McKie in The Observer has no doubts.

Today the makeup of UK transport looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. Rail passenger figures have almost doubled over the past 10 years; commuter trains are crammed; young people are deserting the car for the train; and Britain’s railway bosses are struggling to meet soaring demands for seats.

The legacy of Beeching – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the network, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, in his article, How Beeching is being reversed, David Millward, the Daily Telegraph’s Transport Editor, lists some of the closed lines that are being reinstated.

Trains are once more running on the Chase Line between Birmingham and Walsall, on the Robin Hood Line linking Nottingham, Mansfield and Worksop as well as the Ebbw Valley Line from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff.

Plans are in place for the re-opening of the Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, with the first phase from Oxford to Milton Keynes and Bedford already agreed, while work is already under way on the Waverley route from Edinburgh to Galashiels.

In his on-line piece, Did Dr Beeching get it wrong with his railway cuts 50 years ago? BBC transport correspondent, Richard Westcott, casts Beeching in a more positive light. True, he has former Transport 2000 president, Michael Palin, waxing romantically.

“My father… travelled to London regularly on an express called the Master Cutler, which went from Sheffield to Marylebone, well that line suddenly disappeared.

“The line through from Sheffield to Manchester where we lived and grew up, which had the great Woodhead tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in the world, three miles long, the tunnel was closed while they built a motorway over the Pennines. It had very profound effects in our city,” …

However, Westcott then quotes Network Rail chairman, Sir David Higgins, approvingly:

“Beeching has had a really bad press… the reality is he made the tough decisions that anyone in that position would probably have had to make, the shame was it wasn’t followed on with investment in the subsequent decades after that.”

Is Sir David rolling the turf for possible further contraction of the network? In a possibly prescient piece, The ghost of Beeching still haunts rail, Andrew Gilligan argues in the Daily Telegraph:

…beneath the overall picture of revival lurk some cautionary facts. Railways are still extraordinarily expensive — for both tax and fare payers — while meeting only a tiny fraction of the country’s transport needs.

Public spending on the railways last year, including the Underground, was at least £7.6billion. That was 38 per cent of all public expenditure on transport even though the rail and tube networks account for just nine per cent of passenger journeys by distance, and only 4.5 per cent of goods journeys by tonnage lifted.

The peculiar British form of railway reform subsequently adopted – privatisation by fragmentation – has resulted in one of the most expensive railways in Europe.

While the Department for Environment shies away from radical measures, such as a fundamental reform of the franchising process, or a return to vertical integration, further network ‘optimisation’ might yet be seen as a politically attractive expedient.

An even more pro-Beeching position is presented by Sebastian Payne in his article, Fifty years on from Beeching and Britain’s railways are better than ever, in The Spectator.

Whatever happens, fifty years from today we’ll still be talking about Beeching. By then, the consensus will hopefully have shifted. Dr Beeching was unfairly targeted; instead, he did the right thing to save Britain’s railways.

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Richard Beeching was a brilliant physicist with a keen eye for detail, but arguably in his plans for the future of the Britain’s railways he missed the bigger picture. Photo former British Railways Board archives.

Ultimately, Beeching failed, the closures failed to bring about their intended result: a profitable railway. Instead, deprived of the feeder traffic brought in by the axed feeder lines, traffic on the remaining trunk lines fell disastrously, and BR’s loss spiralled ever higher. Beeching’s solution – further closures.

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What Britain’s railways would have looked like had the second phase of closures proposed by Beeching gone ahead. Map by Cronholm144.

(Click map for details of licensing.)

This was too radical even for the government, Beeching returned to his previous employers, ICI, and a more gradual timetable for rail closures was rolled out. By the early 1970s, the railway community brought out their big guns.

The railway unions, under the leadership of National Union of Railwaymen, Assistant General Secretary, Sidney Weighell launched Transport 2000 (today Campaign for Better Transport). British Railways Board Chairman, Peter Parker, backed the campaign, Richard Faulkner (now Lord Faulkner) became chairman and brought on board national TV personality, Michael Palin, as President. Palin went on to become a powerful ambassador for rail transport.

A few more closures took place during the 1970s. Then the tide turned, but that as they say is another story.

Perhaps the last word on Beeching should be given to Lord Faulkner, quoted by Robin McKie at the end of his article in The Observer.

“Beeching had only one recipe for saving Britain’s loss-making railways and that was to make the network smaller and smaller. He lacked vision and we are paying for that today. Of course, he was not the only public figure who completely misunderstood railways but he was certainly the most prominent.”

Further research

We have gathered together a number of books about the Beeching cuts and their aftermath.

For serious students of transport policy the National Archive provides access the relevant Cabinet papers and other government documents.

  • National Archive, Cabinet Papers – Railways

The Ecologics website offers a scholarly analysis of the events leading up to the publication of the Beeching Report.

Postscript

To learn how one European government still thinks that it can prune back its rail network to come up with ‘a profitable railway’ see Poland’s railways – Cinderella of Europe on our sister blog, Behind The Water Tower.

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