Beeching revisited

Saturday, March 30 2013


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


From top engineering exporter…

Sunday, December 23 2012

…to housing estate!


Portrait of an Engineer, a day in the life of Vulcan Foundry production engineer Ted Wilson. Film Central Office of Information, 1954.

Anyone still wondering when and where everything went belly up should look at these two videos. For over 150 years, the Vulcan Foundry at Newton Le Willows was one of the pearls of Britain’s export industry.

It was accepted wisdom that before you could import things you had to sell enough goods abroad to pay for them. If a country had large foreign debts – as the UK had to the USA after WWII – you restricted domestic consumption and  tried all that much harder to export.

The storyline of that classic Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico resolves around this fact. At the same time, if something was being made much cheaper in part of the world where the welfare of citizens and workers was much lower than in the UK, there were substantial import tariffs to protect UK jobs.

At some point ‘import tariffs’ became dirty words, a little later it became unfashionable for governments to restrict the behaviour of banks. But amazingly, although banks were allowed to gamble with their client’s funds, when the chickens came home to roost, national governments were still expected to bale them out.

This seems jolly unfair!

These days the government no longer wants people to make things and sell them abroad, instead it just prints more money, devalues our pensions and savings, and gives the money to the banks.

This seems plain daft!

The trouble is that no one seems to be offering any alternative. No wonder we will all be escaping to watch The Hobbit this Christmas.

Vulcan Foundry, the end. Video author unknown, 2002.

More on Vulcan Foundry:


Branson is back…

Thursday, October 4 2012

And so are we!

Readers may be forgiven for thinking that English Rail had died a slow death from some nasty disease and that our sister blog Behind the Water Tower – which has become rather erratic of late – has also caught the bug. They would be entitled to thing this – the last English Rail post was in March, but they would be wrong!

What has happened is that Dyspozytor has become very cross about what is happening to Poland’s railways and rather than just write about what is going wrong he has decided to DO something about it. This doing business eats time like an ex-works top link steam locomotive eats up the miles hauling an express making up after running late, and unfortunately both blogs have suffered.

The good news is that English Rail is coming back, not as a nearly-every-day blog, but initially on a once a fortnight basis. John Savery has promised to keep an eye on things here to make sure that this time we keep our promises to readers. He will also be contributing his own brilliant photography and pithy editorial. He has commissioned a comment about the West Coast main line fiasco, so here goes!

BBC TV News interview with Sir Richard Branson, Oct 3

I have two things in common with Sir Richard Branson. One, I have been celebrating yesterday’s announcement by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin not to proceed to award a franchise contract to run the West Coast Mail Line to First Group. Two, I once took on the Department for Transport (though it was called the Department OF Transport then) and won!

Not only was the original decision to award the WCML to First Group flawed, the whole process whereby the DfT awards ‘franchises’ for Britain’s railways is deeply flawed. The tender process is reported to have cost the railway companies some £40 million pounds – money that would have been better spent improving services to customers and reducing fares.

BBC TV News report on original decision to award WCML to First Group on Aug 15

Patrick McLoughlin has suspended three officials at the DfT and ordered two reviews: the first into what went wrong with the West Coast competition and the lessons to be learned, the second into the wider DfT rail franchise programme.

However, what is really needed is a much more comprehensive ‘root and branch’ review how the ‘privatisation by fragmentation’ has driven up the costs of Britain’s railways way and what degree of re-integration is needed to drive down unit costs, if not to those achieved by BR, then – at the very least – to European benchmark levels.




The Lickey Banker

Monday, March 26 2012

photos by John Savery, words by Dyspozytor

Stanier-designed LMS Pacific 6201 built in Crewe in 1933 hauling the Vintage Trains Double Lickey Banker on 24 March 2012. Photo John Savery.

After many months ‘resting’ it seems only right that English Rail should celebrate its reappearance in suitable style. And what could be more stylish than these glorious late afternoon photographs of the Double Lickey Banker.

The train hauled by Princess Elizabeth started its tour at Solihull and picked up more passengers at Dorridge; it then ran South through Banbury via Oxford and Didcot. It then headed West and ran through Box Tunnel, descending towards Bath before reaching Bristol.

At Bristol there was a pause of a few hours to service the Pacific before it returned to the Midlands via Bristol Parkway, Wickwar Tunnel and Cheltenham. At Bromsgrove the train paused briefly while two GWR Pannier tanks were attached to the rear of the train for the ascent of the Lickey incline. (In the days of steam banking engines were never attached, they just pushed as far as Blackwell summit and then slowed allowing their train to draw forward.)

The Pannier tanks then took the lead as the train ran over the Chiltern main line to drop off its passengers at Solihull and Dorridge.

GWR 57xx 0-6-0T Pannier Tanks, 7752 and 9600 banking their train up the Lickey Incline. Photo John Savery.

(Click image to enlarge.)

As I look at these photographs I find myself wallowing in waves of nostalgia. I first came across Princess Elizabeth in 1967 when it was a static exhibit at the Dowty Railway Society’s base at Ashchurch in Gloucestershire. I was with a group of school friends on a cycle ride from West Ealing to Corris in North Wales. I had had a Triang Trains OO gauge model of Lizzie since 1962 and it was a thrill to find the prototype, albeit stuck between other rolling stock on a rusty siding. I never imagined they she would ever steam again.

Living in Middlesex in the 1950s with the Piccadilly line at the bottom of my garden (the Great Central’s link line to the GW&GCJR was on the other side of the road) various exotic London Transport steam engines in Metropolitan Railway livery on works trains were quite a common site. I’ll never forget being woken by the chanting in unison in the middle of the night as a squad of navvies lifted a length of rail by hand with no mechanical assistance other than a a set of rail tongs for each.

Around 1962, we moved to West Ealing which had no less than 3 separate freight depots. Here GWR Panniers were a common site particularly at Southall Shed and Acton Yard. My favourite 57xx memory is looking across the Grand Union Canal near Osterley Park at a Pannier hauling a train of empty coal wagons back up the Brentford branch towards Southall.

My thanks to John for bringing the memories flooding back of those Halcyon Days!


Drive your own train… almost!

Friday, November 25 2011

Blackfriars to Kentish Town route learning. Video by Track Access Services.

(Click on image to view; double click to view in full screen mode.)

This is great! The video is titled Tunnel Filming Exercise and shows the cab view on the Blackfriars to Kentish Town section of the Thameslink route. As seen it is embedded in the Track Access Services route training system.

It was put on Vimeo (and presumably made) by David Reed Media. Congratulations to them for putting all 157 of their railway videos on on Vimeo.

We will explore some of the other TAS routes in due course. In the meantime try viewing the Blackfriars – Kentish Town Route in full screen! (If you have problems, try clicking here, to view the video in a separate window; then click the expand video icon on the bottom right of the video screen.)


Railway Heritage Committee repreive?

Friday, November 12 2010

Hanwell Station, December 2008. Though the down fast platform has been removed, the rest of the station retains many original features, such as a wooden waiting room. Rather than undergoing a radical modernisation like its neighbours – West Ealing and Southall – it has been carefully restored to its GWR condition. Photo Sunil Prasannan.

(Click image to enlarge. Click here for details of reuse.)

A late night speech by Lord Faulkner of Worcester on Tuesday has probably saved the work of the Railway Heritage Committee. The Public Bodies Bill received its second reading during a mammoth 8 hour 38 minute debate in the house of Lords on Tuesday. Lord Faulkner had prepared a comprehensive speech regarding the cost effectiveness and usefulness of the Committee, but was only called to speak at 21:54. He cut his speech to the bone and the result was a very eloquent intervention. He first made a short analysis of the constitutional implications of the bill and then said –

I was going to make a speech about a public body with which I have a particular interest and which I had the honour to chair until 2009, standing down when I became a Minister in the Government Whips’ Office: the Railway Heritage Committee. It is a body which has a link with Henry VIII because, as your Lordships may recall, Benjamin Disraeli predicted as long ago as 1845, in his novel ‘Sybil’, that the railways will do as much for mankind as the monasteries did. This is a debate which I want to have on another occasion and in Committee with the Minister.

However, I make the point now that that is a committee with a budget that costs the taxpayer little more than £100,000 a year. That can be reduced further, but that budget would have to be enhanced because the National Railway Museum will in future have to spend at least that amount of money on buying the artefacts and records which, at present, it gets for nothing. It is staffed entirely by volunteers-there is only one paid employee-and works with the grain of the railway industry and the heritage railway section. It was established by three separate Acts of Parliament, two passed by Conservative Governments and one, most recently, by the Labour Government in 2006. It is a body which fulfils the functions that were set out by the Minister standing at the Conservative Dispatch Box in 1996, to the letter, and has never attracted any criticism or scandal. It was abolished, or at least it is facing abolition, as the result of a single sentence in a Department for Transport press release, with no consultation whatever. The only warning that the members of the committee and the industry had that something was coming was the leak in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ on 23 September. As a consequence of that, over 30 individuals, ranging from some very high-profile in international organisations-the Heritage Railway Association itself, the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, Sir William McAlpine and others-all wrote to the Minister begging her to think again before including it in the list for abolition. To no avail, though; that organisation is in Schedule 1 of the Bill. I hope that it will be possible, when we get into Committee, to do something about this deplorable state of affairs and that we can do something that recognises the importance of railway heritage in the tourist sector and in the economy more generally.

I do not want to speak any more tonight other than to say that I hope that my noble friend’s amendment will meet with approval in the House. It is important that we have more time to look at these proposals and redress, at least to some extent, the scandalous lack of consultation that has led to the Bill in its present form.

In the event the amendment to which Lord Faulkner referred – that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee was lost by 151 votes to 188. However, on Thursday Lord Faulkner received a communication to the effect that, following his intervention, the Department for Transport was considering ways in which the work of the Committee could be continued.



Bid to save Railway Heritage Committee

Sunday, November 7 2010

LMS Stanier Class 3P 2-6-2T and buffer-stops at Bradford Exchange Station in April 1961. The locomotive has been scrapped, the station was demolished in 1976, but the buffer stops have been designated by the Railway Heritage Committee. Photo Ben Brooksbank.

(Click on image to see original on Wikipedia and for details of licensing.)

The Railway Heritage Committee is a typically British creation. Its job is to designatw records and artefacts still within the ownership of the British railway industry which are historically significant and should be permanently preserved. Its origins go back to  an Advisory Panel on the Disposal of Historical Records, which  used to meet once or twice a year between 1984 and 1994 and make recommendations to the British Railways Board. Then, as arrangements were being put in place to privatise British Rail, Section 125 of the Railways Act 1993 made provision for a strengthened panel – the Railway Heritage Committee – to advise on the designation of historical records and artefacts still in publish ownership.

The original intention was that, as the former assets of the British Railways Board passed from public to private ownership, the scope of the committee would wither away to zero. In the event, a good case was made that rather than the the remit of the committee to reduce, it should be extended to cover the historic items being taken into the newly privatised railway companies and these new powers were confirmed in the Railways Act 1996. These powers were subsequently renewed and extended in the Transport Act 2000 and the Railways Act 2005. The Committee’s powers cover the following organisations:

  • The British Railways Board (‘the Board’). [Since deleted]
  • Any wholly-owned subsidiary of the Board. [Since deleted]
  • Any company which was formerly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British Railways Board.
  • Any publicly-owned railway company.
  • Any company which was formerly a publicly-owned railway company.
  • The Secretary of State.
  • Any company which is wholly owned by the Secretary of State.
  • Any franchisee, and
  • Any franchise operator.

While the Committee can designate objects or artefacts belonging to any of the above it can also provide advice on railway heritage to other bodies. For example in November 2008, the Committee’s then chairman, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, wrote to the rail minister Lord Adonis asking him to intervene in the proposed forced closure of the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway by Finnish paper-making conglomerate, M-Real.

The Committee has 14 members, drawn from the railway industry, the record offices, the museums world, the heritage railway sector, and from railway historians. With the Committee’s members working as unpaid volunteers and the Department for Transport providing ‘reasonable administrative and secretarial support’, the RHC is probably one of the most cost-effective QANGOS in the country. Certainly in other countries railway historians look jealously at the way the preservation of railway archives and artefacts has been handled in the UK. But now the Committe has been targeted as one of the 175 ‘Non-Departmental Public Bodies’ that the government wish to axe as part of its campaign to reduce waste in the public sector. The Committee has served the rail industry for the last 14 years, providing continuity to the work of identifying railway records and artefacts for preservation, started by British Railways over 60 years ago.

On Tuesday, the Public Bodies Act – legislation which would enable Government Ministers to abolish QANGOS – comes up for a second reading in the House of Lords. The legislation will be challenged on several grounds! A number of Lords rightly feel that it is wrong to introduce legislation which would make it possible to dispose by Ministerial fiat statutory bodies bodies – those set up by Parliamet – without any scrutiny by either the Lords or The Commons. Meanwhile Heritage Railway Association President-elect, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, will be proposing his own amendment to save the work of the Committee. The continued existence of the Committee has been generally supported by the railway industry, only the new Network Rail board, anxious to demonstrate a more compliant attitude to the DfT, has – without any public notice – betrayed the cause!