The fall and rise of Britain’s railways

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This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Beeching’s ‘The Re-Shaping of British Railways’. Writes Colin Garratt

2013 also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Serpell Report. These two events mirrored the tempestuous undertones of railway policy in the years following World War Two.

In this eight part series, Colin Garratt of Milepost 921⁄2 outlines the turbulent events which led up to the privatisation of British Rail in 1993, concluding with an analysis of the current situation and where it might be heading.

Beeching’s first report, ‘The Re- Shaping of British Railways,’ was published in March 1963.

Few people had expected anything so draconian. Over 2,000 stations and 280 lines – almost a third of the network – were to be closed. Overnight Beeching became regarded as a tyrant.

Yet the worst thing that happened to him was being hit by an egg at Newcastle upon Tyne. Much of the abuse levelled at Beeching did not take into account the fact that his brief, however irresponsibly, was solely to produce a formula to eradicate the railway’s financial losses and to be in profit by 1970.

He was not asked to philosophise on the rights and wrongs of transport policy or to flag up the environmental benefits of rail or even to outline what effect his closures would have on local communities. He, or more accurately the government, simply needed to strip out costs to a point at which the network would cease to be loss making. In brief, the government didn’t want to pay for the railway notwithstanding the myriad benefits that it offered.

Britain’s greatest technological gift to mankind

No detailed costing on this scale had ever been conducted on the railways before. Beeching maintained that 80% of the network earned only 20% of the revenue. The pure logic of this could not be ignored, however disturbing the implications might be.

The railway had been Britain’s greatest technological gift to mankind and had been built by spectacular endeavour to become the most dense network on earth. It remained a source of great national pride. It was clearly an inescapable fact that many lines were losing money and they would continue to do so as the road network developed.

But many felt that railways were essentially right; the correct form of transport from the safety, energy and Transport - Dr Richard Beeching - Londonenvironmental viewpoint. Also that motorcars were an indulgence and heavy trucking something to be resisted.

These were not just prevalent sentiments of railwaymen and enthusiasts, they also had a lot of support among the public at large. I have to say that I find an irrefutable similarity between the average driver and Mr Toad and it is not attractive.

Beeching’s chairmanship of the newly formed British Railways Board coincided with the decimation of steam traction. Once he was asked in an interview if he would like a steam locomotive to be named after him.

His reply was that he would rather it be a pub.

This, combined with his apparent lack of interest in the future of ‘The Flying Scotsman’ – arguably the world’s most famous steam locomotive and a national heirloom, lent strength to the notion that Beeching was insensitive, if not actually plebeian – someone who had no legitimate purpose interfering with the national infrastructure.

One compelling attack frequently used by those opposed to the Beeching Report was that many of the figures had been cooked or at least were wrong. These beliefs were subsequently fuelled by the publication of David Henshaw’s barnstorming book, ‘The Great Railway Conspiracy,’ in 1991.

Henshaw conceded that many of Beeching’s lines were uneconomic but with conviction claimed that at least a third of the cuts were a nonsense. At the beginning of the 1960s Britain had 7,000 railway stations and by the end of that decade only some 3,000 remained.

The cost of railways, compared to roads

The entire Beeching saga raises the timeless question of the cost of railways compared with roads. Few coherent figures have ever been drawn up detailing the real cost of a road based economy; death and injuries, policing, energy consumption and the limitless construction projects to contort the environment out of all recognition to make way for the plague of vehicles to come.

There was nothing unusual about line closures, not least as, between 1923 and 1939, the number of buses doubled whilst lorries increased by eight times. Between 1922 and 1947, 1,650 miles of lines were closed, including the much loved Lynton and Barnstaple in 1935, whilst between 1948 and 1953, under the British Transport Commission, 1,253 miles of track were closed to all traffic and 1,167 miles to passenger services.

Much of the animosity levelled at Beeching was due to the recklessness with which his edicts were carried out. As soon as lines and stations closed the infrastructure was frequently ripped out and often the land sold.

4 [online]One thinks of the majestic Crumlin viaduct over the Ebbw valley in South Wales which was a magnificent structure demolished three years after closure of the line. A longer period should elapse before a railway can be re-claimed for other purposes. After all, railways are part of a nation’s strategic infrastructure and should be beyond the remit of a random individual.

If a yobbo leaves a pub the worse for drink late one Saturday evening and, for example, breaks a few flower baskets in the Town Hall Square, he is hauled up before the magistrates on Monday morning. But with Beeching, we have an individual who has torn out one third of the nation’s railways on a purely cold blooded, monetary driven remit with no concern for the future implications of his actions and he is made a life peer with a salary of £357,000 (in today’s terms).

As the railway shrank in size and its future became ever more in question, vast acreages of railway land were sold off in what many regarded as a shameful binge. Many felt that there was a movement to ensure that the railway could never again provide an alternative to a road based economy.

Inter-city operation

However not everything about Beeching was negative. He saw a future for the development of trunk routes for inter-city operation between major cities allied to modernised distribution points for freightliner trains, along with train load freight operation for bulk commodities such as coal, aggregates, oil and steel.

The uncertainly of Britain’s railways in the early 1960s had caused much concern for the railway’s many customers and was detrimental to the industry’s well- being as epitomised by a statement made by the Transport Manager of the Metal Box Company

‘Can I rely on having railway facilities where and when I need them or might the railways be closed down?’ He continued, ‘If we build a new factory, is it prudent to install private siding facilities or should we be investing in road transportation?’

Amazingly many of the lines targeted by Beeching were actually closed under Harold Wilson’s

Labour government which had taken office in 1964. When in opposition, Labour had vigorously opposed the Beeching cuts but upon assuming power they did a complete U-turn, including the crass stupidity of shutting the important east – west route between Oxford and Cambridge, a line which was not even on Beeching’s list!

Work has now begun on restoring the Oxford – Bletchley section. With hindsight, it is easy to see routes which should never have been closed, obvious examples being the Great Central, built to the continental loading gauge, which would conceivably be of great value today. Another is the

Waverley Route from Carlisle to Edinburgh which is currently being re-opened between Edinburgh and Tweedbank.

Options for preservationists

One amazing twist of fate to the Beeching story which he never dreamt of was that the closure of many rural lines in areas of tourism left a wide choice of options for preservationists to restore them with the running of steam trains so creating an enormous tourist potential for Britain.

Today the nation has around one hundred different lines running steam trains, many of which owe their existence to Beeching. These private operators are keen to forge links with the national network to increase pro-activity.

By an incredible twist of fate, the South Wales scrapyard of Dai Woodham of Barry held a massive reserve of condemned steam locomotives embracing over 40 different designs. Woodham was a saviour; he did much to negate the destruction of Beeching by co- operating with preservationists and allowing them a stay of execution for the locomotives so enabling funds to be raised.

It was a preservation miracle. Virtually none of Dai Woodham’s locomotives were ever broken up and 213 of them left the Barry graveyard for distribution to preservation centres all over the country. Many of Dai Woodham’s locomotives are 8 [online]frequently seen in full glory working specials on the main line network to the fascination of millions of admirers.

The steam train is now an indelible aspect of Britain’s cultural identity and does much to create an awareness of, and interest in, the railway industry. It could be used to promote the railway a lot more.

A second report

In 1965, Beeching produced a second report (Major Railway Trunk Route) suggesting further cuts. Losses had continued to rise and the ‘railway problem’ had not been resolved, despite all the invective which had been aimed at it.

This time Beeching defiantly advocated reducing the system to 3,000 route miles of intensely modernised main line and 4,500 miles of secondary lines with minimal maintenance and fewer stations. It was a frightening prospect but, fortunately, Beeching fell out with the Labour administration and resigned.

The chimerical face of the man is evidenced by the Road Haulier’s Association seriously considering hiring him for services to their industry but pulled out at the last moment fearing that he may be biased towards rail.

And so another chapter in railway history came to a close and Beeching returned to ICI from whence he had come amid a haze of blue cigar smoke.

Part 4: The Railway Problem, Serpel and The Road to Privatisation will be published in July.

Photographs supplied by Milepost 921⁄2