Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Beeching, Fifty Years On

Fifty years ago Dr Richard Beeching published his first report (and how many people realise he wrote two reports?) titled The Reshaping of British Railways. For some areas of the country and many communities, the content would change some things forever. Even in the sixties there were some parts of the country where whole towns relied on the railway to provide employment and prosperity. Once this support is removed, the results can be severe.

The only thing is, I don't think we can just 'blame' Beeching for all of the cuts and closures which followed his report. After all railway companies had been closing lines since the thirties! The sixties just saw this process accelerated. There’s even a chance that had some of the closures not gone ahead, the drain on finances could have had a lasting and damaging effect on remaining lines and resources.

By the time Beeching was seconded to the British Railways Board, the railways were in a deep decline. The fifties had seen the adoption of diesel units for use on some lines in order cut operating costs, but this wasn’t accompanied by any other changes. Lines in this area, such as those to Hornsea and Withernsea were early conversions for these units. However, the new trains passed numerous signal boxes and manned level crossings along with quite a few staffed stations. There was no overall modernisation in cases like this. Even the ‘Modernisation Plan’ of 1955 wasn’t allowed run its course before mass orders of untried and untested diesel locomotives were hurried through.

Not that this is all the fault of the railway. Not at all. One fundamental problem in Britain was the way hundreds of railway companies built lines, subject to Acts of Parliament, as they pleased. This lead to lines which duplicated others and served areas which just couldn’t ultimately sustain the railway in terms of passenger numbers or goods traffic. The Malton & Driffield Railway is a wonderful example of a real folly – visions of a mainline to take coal away from Newcastle to export it via Hull! Numerous problems appeared during the construction and even the junction at the southern end faced the wrong way meaning any through trains would have had to reverse at Driffield! The Second World War took its toll too – the railways were worked and worked. Maintenance was the minimum which would allow things to still function. When the war ended, the four railway companies were promised funds to rebuild and renew. This money never materialised.

Kiplingcotes Station on the York - Beverley line.

At this point, you need to think about how you view a railway system – is it there to provide a public service or is it a business which must pay its way. I think in truth, it’s always been a mix – early railways often built lines to exploit mineral and other freight sources. However lines might only be allowed to be built on the condition that trains were also provided to serve the communities and areas through which they ran. A compromise solution really. Kiplingcotes station on the York – Beverley is a great example of a station which was provided as a condition for building a line across someone’s land. Following the end of hostilities in there was a turning point for the railways – nationalisation.

In this view, the railways are owned by the state – essentially ‘for the people’. This arrangement has a lot going for it – any profits remain in public funds and can finance developments which benefit those who fund it through fares. However, one problem was the money which had promised for repairing wartime damage was instead used to pay off shareholders. Paying off capitalists doesn’t ever really sit well with the socialist side of a nationalised company. So, we had a national railway company and system with no money for developments and repairs – not that the Big Four had pots of money, by the end they certainly didn’t, but that’s a story for another time. A lack of investment would continue as a theme for many, many years on the railway.

Other countries had help to rebuild their railways and general infrastructure. Clearly mainland Europe suffered far more than the UK did but this was a key difference. And it began a slow decline of many parts of Britain’s railways.

So by the sixties, something had to be done – the world was moving on. Families desired their own transport in the form of a car. In rural areas a car can make life infinitely easier. A branch line with a handful of trains is never going to match the ease of having your own car outside is it? Similarly, lorries had made an impact since the end of the great war – then war surplus lorries had been available very cheaply. On a local short haul basis, lorries were very convenient. The local pick up struggled to compete with these often. Society was modernising, and the railway was operating in many areas in exactly the same way as it had in Victorian times. In fact many areas had seen mass closures earlier, in the fifties – the Borders had seen miles and miles of rural lines disappear leaving many areas with little or no public transport.

I’m trying to leave politics out of this but it is interesting to note that when Beeching was appointed it was a Tory government but it was Labour who followed through with implementing the recommendations. And I’m in no doubt that Beeching was chosen because he would be far more ruthless than a railwayman would have been. But the main cause of the sheer number of closures with little consideration to future needs was that he was charged with making the railways pay, based on, essentially, a snap shot of passenger and good numbers. There are always rumours of rigged surveys, but I doubt this. My father, during his time with BR, actually undertook passenger surveys in this area. They didn’t know the purpose behind them so they were a true picture of the days when they were taken. How they were used is open to more scrutiny though.

The York – Beverley line is a line which I have come to know well post closure (it closed before I was born!). Looking at towns on the route now, they have grown and developed far beyond what many would have guessed fifty years ago. Beverley, Market Weighton, Pocklington and Stamford Bridge could all have provided far more traffic now than they could ever have done when the line was in existence. But the report wasn’t there to guess or predict future planning and population rises. Sadly. Other lines could claim the very same. Population growth since the mid sixties would have made many lines viable.

The York line was even due to be a test bed for the CTC concept before inclusion in the report. This would have meant the line would have been singled for much of its length with a number of long passing loops and all controlled from York. Materials were even on site in readiness for the conversion. The report ignored this as it was in the remit. In hindsight this seems foolish I think.

Shankend Signal Box on the Waverley route - since closure it has become a holiday home and the location is quite isolated.

Other routes, such as the Waverley Route and others, have been covered in detail elsewhere – Hawick, though, is one place which to me shows the sign of a town a little lost without rail links. Its remote location (42 miles from Carlisle, 55 from Newcastle and 57 from Edinburgh) with roads for transport must have had an impact. The route itself may have provided much needed relief for Anglo-Scottish freight traffic now, much as the Settle & Carlisle has done further south (itself another line highlight in the report and the survivor of numerous closure proposals). Of course, hindsight is a wonderful tool – but it does make you think.

The Waverley line curves toward Whithope tunnel - the isolated nature of the site is very obvious if you visit. The roads are not great either!

The lack of planning for future needs, mothballing what could be key routes in time, retaining ownership of land are all, I feel, the real legacies of The Reshaping of British Railways.

Beeching did make some quite positive impacts – the Inter-City concept, Freightliner and Merry-Go-Round operations came from his time with BR. All of which continue to form a key and important part of the railway today. Indeed, moving large loads of one kind is something the railway has been very good at for two hundred years.

An example of a latter day use of the HAA style MGR hoppers - they've been superseeded by larger wagons now, but the idea and use is exactly the same.

The loss of jobs is something with which, as a railwayman, I can really empathise – many current railwaymen are facing exactly the same uncertainty as areas come up for major resignalling projects – I’ve tried to keep this from my mind when considering this subject. After all, we are there to serve the travelling public and those who come into contact with the railway on a daily basis. But it’s still there at the back of my mind.

I feel that Beeching has become a bit of a scapegoat for politicians who if not anti-railway, were certainly not pro-rail; Marples connections are well known too. And the word ‘Beeching’ is now synonymous with railway closures. He had a very tight brief and in this he certainly succeeded in some areas – whether this should have been the aim of his time as Chairman is another matter. Enthusiasts need to take a step back from their rose tinted views of branch lines before they can really assess the result of all of this.

Worse than the whole Beeching era could have been for things to carry on just as they had been. The risk being that even more of the network becoming unsustainable whilst private car ownership continue to rise, taking even more traffic away from ailing lines. However, we have made use and developed much of what was left. Some lines survived closure attempts and have flourished. On mainlines passenger numbers are higher than they have ever been in places. The railway is far from dead, it’s thriving – despite the negative side of Dr Beeching’s The Reshaping of British Railways I’m sure he had a positive effect on some parts of the railway.

Maybe it’s time to reassess just what Dr Richard Beeching’s legacy really is?


  1. A very balanced and intelligent essay. Nicely done!

  2. Hi James, very interesting article. Nice mention of Pocklington.
    Thanks, Greg.