History has made heroes of the men who powered Britain’s economic and social revolution through the 18th and 19th centuries. Names that still inspire: Arkwright, Darby, Stephenson, Watt, Telford. More transitory and villainous was the notoriety bestowed on a few Government fall guys, hand-picked to turn the clocks back by decimating industries, only for anonymity to claim them again.
During his tenure at British Steel, Sir Ian MacGregor remorselessly shut plants and jettisoned people, preparing the ground for privatisation. He then took a wrecking ball to our coal mines, bringing regions to their knees. And yet, despite the chasm he left behind, few remember him – he has not forever become Murderous MacGregor, or something equally burning. It is perhaps unjust then that the contraction of Britain’s railway network a generation earlier is still, for many, attributable solely to an engineer and physicist, recruited from the private sector to drag the industry back into profitability – an ultimately futile task.
People have protective instincts towards the railways, even if they don’t use them. In the pre-digital age, they fitted neatly into the fabric of our towns and villages, earning favour as a bringer of employment, commodities and freedom. So we felt compelled to pin their demise on a wrong-doer, and we didn’t have far to look. It will only ever be “Beeching’s axe” that severed our branch lines and disenfranchised whole districts. That we were being royally seduced by the motor car’s independence was neither here nor there. That more than 3,000 miles of railway had been torn up in the 12 years preceding his infamous report is a reality of inconvenience. It was all down to Dr Beeching.
This was of course a game involving a hopelessly stacked deck: misleading data, crooked calculations, vested interests. It was classic politics. Everyone knew the outcome before the process had begun; it was just a case of contriving the evidence.
A railway platform
There’s no denying that Dr Richard Beeching had a very fine intellect. Gaining a First Class honours degree and PhD from London’s Imperial College, his early career was built around metallurgy, physics and mechanical engineering research. He spent the Second World War attached to the Ministry of Supply, working in the shell design section under Sir Ewart Smith, a former Chief Engineer with Imperial Chemical Industries. He joined the firm as Smith’s technical assistant in 1948, rising at pace through a series of analytical posts before, at the age of 40, being sent to Canada where he directed the construction and operation of a Terylene plant. Returning home, his talents secured him chairmanship of ICI’s Metals Division before joining the board as its Technical Director in 1957.
Smith played one more role in shaping Beeching’s professional future, recommending him to Tory Transport Minister Ernest Marples after Smith declined the offer of a seat on the working group seeking a way forward for the British Transport Commission. The BTC was in a parlous state, thanks largely to its overburdening bureaucracy and the financial black hole the railways had fallen into. The group’s chairman, Sir Ivan Stedeford, found Beeching an impressive character but locked horns with him over his belief that only drastic pruning could save the industry. This was however music to the ears of Marples who, in contravention of Parliamentary rules, had remained an 80% shareholder in the civil engineering company he had co-founded in 1948, which subsequently secured contracts for several major road schemes. Valued at upwards of £350,000, he eventually sold the shares to his wife.
Fall from grace
Early in the 20th century, the railway system peaked at 23,440 route miles. It had developed at a mind-boggling rate, overcoming daunting physical barriers to achieve almost omnipresence. But the emergence of road transport and the pounding it took during the Second World War left the network in a wretched state, in both physical and commercial terms.
Under Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, the 1947 Transport Act made way for nationalisation, giving life to British Railways – operating name for the BTC’s Railway Executive – on 1st January 1948.
Established soon after was a Branch Lines Committee, putting down a marker that set the direction for the next 20 years. It operated under a straightforward remit: to close the least-used lines, based on the contention that some parts of the network would never pay and offered no great social value. But BR’s finances continued to haemorrhage, with an operating loss recorded in 1955. To eliminate this, a bold modernisation plan was developed with the goal of making the railways attractive again: faster speeds, greater reliability, more capacity. The £1.24 billion investment would bring electrification, renewed track and signalling, vast marshalling yards, new rolling stock and the replacement of steam with diesel and electric traction.
It was destined to fail as losses mounted, reaching £42 million in 1959. This though painted a distorted picture as much of that deficit was attributable to declining coal traffic. Operating costs had been substantially cut, meanwhile passenger receipts were rising. Some branch lines actually made money. But the die had been cast. By 1962, in public ownership the network had lost over 3,300 route miles. And the railway community was being decimated too, staff numbers falling by more than a quarter to 474,000. Over the same period, car and lorry mileage soared by 10% per year, fuelled latterly by the lifting of petrol rationing.
Radical solutions were sought to the railway’s tangled finances. Stedeford’s deliberations ran out of time, having heard evidence mostly from the road lobby. But against the odds, his committee found itself unwilling to endorse the line closure programme advocated by the Ministry. For rail, its verdict proved fair and largely benign, so much so that it was not made public. The modernisation plan, which Stedeford had recommended for review, was cut back, with investment on secondary and branch lines almost drying up altogether.
The 1962 Transport Act abolished the British Transport Commission, replacing it with a number of bodies amongst which was the British Railways Board.
It went live on 1st January 1963. Appointed its first Chairman was Richard Beeching who had led the BTC for the previous 18 months. Controversy attended with his salary award. Whilst, at £24,000, it reflected his ICI pay, this was more than double that of any other nationalised industry’s head. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan only earned £14,000. Perceived as unjust, the sense of resentment against the Doctor intensified.
The Fifties’ cull of branch lines was not delivering results. Studies showed that it might have been cheaper to subsidise some of them, rather than opt for closure. Social benefits also emerged in favour of retention. Against this background, a noisy protest movement had formed, with the Railway Development Association adding to its volume. Professor E R Hondelink, a respected United Nations transport consultant, asserted that branch line losses were comparatively small and could be turned around through efficiencies, instead fingering bureaucracy and a bloated management structure for the railway’s ills.
But the Government was having none of it. The ’62 Act included provisions to limit the powers of the local Consultative Committees which held inquiries into closure proposals, removing the obligation to consider social and strategic factors. To deliver a transport revolution, the Government engineered an easier ride and launched a vigorous press campaign to silence its critics, ramping up the case against rural lines by attributing most of the industry’s losses to them. More would have to go.
The axeman cometh
Beeching’s much-anticipated report on The Reshaping of British Railways was first exposed to scrutiny on 27th March 1963. Amongst its highlights were the now familiar recommendations: 5,000 route miles closed to passengers and 2,363 stations shut. One third of the network was carrying just 1% of the traffic, he asserted. The least- used 50% of stations contributed only 2% of passenger revenues.
On digging deeper, the cold character of this profit and loss exercise revealed itself. Page after page of almost pure accountancy, such were his terms of reference. Social and economic benefits were disregarded; so too were the cost- saving measures that could have brought salvation for some lines.
Many conclusions were founded on passenger density figures collated as part of a major traffic census over a single week in April 1961. This disadvantaged lines into holiday resorts which were unsurprisingly quiet at this time.
In a double whammy for them, the viability – or otherwise – of individual stations was determined through analysis of their ticket sale receipts during 1960, greatly handicapping places that people mostly travelled to, not from. Visitors to those holiday resorts would have far outnumbered locals heading the other way, but the revenue they brought did not count in their stations’ favour. The contributory value to the network of any station or route – perhaps as a feeder of commuters onto a main line – was discounted; they stood on their own feet or fell.
This approach effectively meant curtains for almost every branch line, depriving huge geographical areas of any rail service at all. And strategic routes would be lost too: the Waverley, the Great Central, the Settle & Carlisle, Stranraer- Dumfries. Through manipulation of the process and distortion of the figures, the case for tearing apart Britain’s railways had been set out. Accepted by the Government, Beeching’s “reshaping” prompted uproar beyond Westminster, especially in communities affected by the cuts. Rural bus services were often unreliable, running to a thin timetable and sometimes completely disappearing during winter months.
All was not lost though. In a surprising strategic blunder, Beeching’s report detailed a series of financial assumptions for route maintenance, signalling, stations and train movements – offset against income – supposedly to demonstrate the unviability of a hypothetical branch line operating an hourly service to stations two-and-a-half miles apart. The tipping point between profit and loss was, he claimed, about 17,000 weekly passengers. But what these assumptions actually revealed was a whitewash – they were all worst-case: low passenger revenues, no freight, unrealistic timetables, inflated running costs, no staff or signalling economies. With some effort, the break-even point could be halved in terms of passenger numbers. These skewed calculations were compounded by equally flawed suppositions supporting replacement buses. Beeching had inadvertently handed campaigners a stick with which to beat him and they did so with some relish.
Leading the opposition to the Fifties’ closures had been the Railway Development Association, founded in 1951. It fought a number of campaigns, most notably on the Isle of Wight where it hired a barrister and called witnesses to contest the BTC’s dubious figures. The most cogent challenge in the Sixties came from the Secretary of the newly- formed National Council on Inland Transport – a man with genuine experience of railway operations, something Beeching could only dream of.
Roger Calvert could see the cracks in the reshaping plan but the means of exploiting them – the Transport Users Consultative Committees – had been largely neutered by the 1962 Act. NCIT sought a legal mechanism to force the committees to examine lines’ finances, not just the question of hardship as was their revised theoretical scope. This came to a head at Buxton in May 1964 where the future of the line to Manchester was on the table. Calvert used Beeching’s own figures to dismantle those served up by British Railways, reducing the route’s projected £180,000 loss by 71%. Implementation of savings could allow it to turn a small profit. The Minister retreated, issuing a reprieve.Calvert’s continued probing exposed a predictable truth: many threatened lines could cover their costs with modest operational changes, if they weren’t doing so already. Indeed a sizeable closure programme could actually cost BR money as main line and secondary routes lost the contributory revenue brought by the branches. The new order would not drive passengers onto subsided buses heading for a distant railhead; they’d end up buying a car.It made little difference. In the immediate aftermath of the report’s publication, closures were halted while stock was taken. But as the 1964 General Election approached, they accelerated again, peaking that year as 1,058 route miles were done away with. Labour’s Harold Wilson secured a narrow victory on a ticket of halting the most significant closures until a national transport review had been concluded. As is often the case in politics, with power came forgetfulness.
Beeching II, a promised report into The Development of the Major Trunk Routes, arrived on 16th February 1965. Avoiding the word “closure”, it made the case for actively developing 3,000 of the 7,500 miles “selected for retention” in the first report, an effective admission that just lopping branches off the network would not necessarily bring profit. Underpinning these latest proposals was Beeching’s assertion that too many corridors featured duplicating lines, in some cases as many as four. Instead traffic would be focussed onto nine key routes. But few took the report seriously – it was pushed to one side, as was Beeching; Wilson deciding against an extension of his contract. In June 1965, clutching a Life Peerage, ICI welcomed him back.
Labour forged ahead with the cuts, under pressure from the road lobby and parts of the civil service. Only when Barbara Castle took Ministerial control in December 1965 were the brakes gradually applied. She concluded that the network should be stabilised at around 11,000 route miles, unveiling Network for Development plans and paving the way for socially-important loss-making lines to benefit from subsidies through the 1968 Transport Act. Whilst this saved some branches, most had already gone.
On the evening of Sunday 5th January 1969, blocked by protestors and running two hours late, a London-bound sleeper train travelled over the Waverley for a final time – the last great casualty of the Beeching cuts. Amongst the wreckage were several unlikely survivors – the Far North and Kyle of Lochalsh lines, the South-West branches, the route through mid-Wales; even the Settle-Carlisle. But a stay of execution for the Hope Valley line would see the Bakewell route sacrificed, eventually taking down Woodhead.
Beyond ignorance lurked dogma and conspiracy. The railway was knackered and becoming a bottomless pit; roads were new and shiny – the next big thing – and those with a vested interest in having more of them would not be thwarted. No-one thought to look 30, 40, 50 years hence to a time when the two might comfortably coexist, supporting one-another. Who could have foreseen congestion and fuel prices pushing commuters back onto the train? It was all very short term.
But it’s harsh to define Beeching’s legacy in terms of the closures. He cared about the railway and contributed much to it, championing its role in moving bulk minerals and developing the Liner Train concept for containerised freight. There will always be the photographs though -melancholy scenes of dilapidated stations and overgrown trackbeds, redundant engines quietly rusting, tunnels bricked up, villagers huddling under brollies to await the daily bus.
The man himself categorised the cuts as “surgery, not mad chopping”. They were certainly clinical, both in concept and execution. But there was nothing cosmetic about them. This was frantic amputation without a firm diagnosis. The wounds inflicted by Beeching have not yet fully healed.